Home News Eric Garner’s Death Will Not Lead to Federal Charges for N.Y.P.D. Officer – The New York Times

Eric Garner’s Death Will Not Lead to Federal Charges for N.Y.P.D. Officer – The New York Times

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The Justice Department will not bring federal charges against a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner, ending a yearslong inquiry into a case that sharply divided officials and prompted national protests over excessive force by the police, according to three people briefed on the decision.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn intend to announce the decision not to bring criminal civil rights charges on Tuesday morning, just one day before the fifth anniversary of Mr. Garner’s death. That is the deadline by which they would have to file some of the possible charges against the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.

The decision extinguishes the hopes of the Garner family and their supporters that Officer Pantaleo might face prosecution in a case that ignited demonstrations and debates over the use of force by police officers and led to changes in policing practices across the United States.

In June, the Police Department finished a disciplinary trial to determine if Officer Pantaleo should be fired or punished in some other way for using what appeared to be a chokehold, which the department had banned more than two decades ago.

It is ultimately up to Commissioner James P. O’Neill, as the final arbiter of police discipline, to decide whether to fire Officer Pantaleo or take less drastic action, like docking vacation time.

But Mr. O’Neill will not make a formal decision until the police administrative judge who oversaw the disciplinary trial renders her verdict, and he is still awaiting her report, a spokesman for the department, Philip T. Walzak, said in a statement. “Because of the need to protect the integrity of the process, the N.Y.P.D. will not comment further at this time,” the statement said.

John Marzulli, a spokesman for the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which investigated the case along with the F.B.I., also declined to comment on Tuesday morning.

Officer Pantaleo, 34, has been on desk duty without a shield or a gun since Mr. Garner died, a status that has allowed him to accrue pay and pension benefits.

Mr. Garner, who was 43, died on a Staten Island sidewalk on July 17, 2014, after Officer Pantaleo wrapped an arm around his neck from behind and took him to the ground and other officers put their weight on him, compressing his chest against the pavement. A medical examiner testified at the disciplinary hearing that the pressure on Mr. Garner’s neck and chest set in motion a fatal asthma attack.

Some bystanders captured video of the attack on their cellphones, recording Mr. Garner as he gasped “I can’t breathe,” dying words that became a rallying cry for protesters across the nation.

His death was one of several fatal encounters between black people and the police, including the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a month later, that catalyzed the national Black Lives Matter movement.

Prosecutors did a “rigorous analysis” of the event, but in the end they did not believe they had enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Pantaleo committed a crime, a senior Justice Department official said on Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized to speak on the record.

To prove criminal conduct, the official said, the government had to convince a jury that in the middle of a dynamic arrest Officer Pantaleo made a clear decision in his mind to apply a chokehold, a burden prosecutors did not believe they could meet, the official said.

None of the New York officers involved in Mr. Garner’s death have been charged with a crime or disciplined by the Police Department, a fact that has enraged the Garner family and various advocacy groups devoted to holding the police accountable for abuses of power.

Mr. Garner’s family members — including his mother, Gwen Carr, and his widow, Esaw Snipes — were scheduled to meet with federal prosecutors and the Rev. Al Sharpton on Tuesday morning, according to a statement from Mr. Sharpton. Prosecutors from the Eastern District of New York were scheduled to announce the decision after that meeting.

A state grand jury declined to bring charges against Officer Pantaleo in December 2014, after the police officer testified in his own defense that he did not put Mr. Garner into a chokehold, a maneuver that is prohibited by the New York Police Department, and that he feared that he would be pushed through a storefront window during the struggle.

ImageThe New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo leaving his house in Staten Island in May.
CreditEduardo Munoz Alvarez/Associated Press

But a federal investigation into Mr. Garner’s death proceeded, sharply dividing the Justice Department under four attorneys general and two presidents.

The attorney general at the time of the death, Eric H. Holder Jr., said that evidence strongly suggested that the federal government should bring charges against Officer Pantaleo, even though it is notoriously hard to prosecute police officers for deaths in custody and the government might lose.

While career civil rights prosecutors agreed with Mr. Holder, prosecutors under the United States attorney in Brooklyn, Loretta E. Lynch, sharply disagreed. Officer Pantaleo had testified that he intended to put Mr. Garner into a takedown hold that would not restrict his breathing and that it was not clear whether the dead man’s civil rights had been violated.

Prosecutors in Brooklyn and in Washington also disagreed about whether a passer-by’s cellphone video supported Officer Pantaleo’s account.

After Ms. Lynch succeeded Mr. Holder in April 2015, officials including the head of the civil rights division, Vanita Gupta, worked to convince her that the officers had used excessive force and had likely violated Mr. Garner’s civil rights.

Ms. Lynch allowed the civil rights division to take a lead role in the case, and the following September the department replaced the F.B.I. agents and prosecutors who had been working on the case with a new team from outside of New York.

But the case stalled again after Mr. Trump won the presidential election and appointed Jeff Sessions as his attorney general. Civil rights division prosecutors recommended that charges be brought, and they asked the deputy attorney general at the time, Rod J. Rosenstein, about indicting Officer Pantaleo.

But Mr. Rosenstein did not allow the department to move forward on an indictment, and many officials said they believed that there was a good chance that the government would lose the case should it go to trial.

The last time the federal government brought a deadly force case against a New York police officer was in 1998, when Officer Francis X. Livoti stood trial on — and was eventually convicted of — civil rights charges in the choking death of a Bronx man named Anthony Baez.

Federal prosecutors signaled they were still interested in the case as recently as June, when Elizabeth Geddes, the head of the civil rights unit that covers Staten Island, appeared at the disciplinary hearing for Officer Pantaleo. She left the proceedings at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan after it became clear that Officer Pantaleo would not testify.

At the hearing, Officer Pantaleo faced charges of recklessly using a chokehold on Mr. Garner and intentionally restricting his breathing. Prosecutors from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a police oversight agency, argued that he should be fired; his attorney, Stuart London, maintained that the officer did nothing wrong, but used a technique taught in the Police Academy known as the seatbelt maneuver, not a chokehold.

Ashley Southall contributed reporting.

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