By Jonathan Allen
NEWYORK (Reuters) – A white New York City police officer who killed an unarmed black man with a banned chokehold in 2014 should be fired, a police judge recommended on Friday in a case that stoked the Black Lives Matter movement and reverberated in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo had been on desk duty since widely viewed cellphone videos showed him using the chokehold on Eric Garner during an attempted arrest on a sidewalk in Staten Island, one of five boroughs in the most populous U.S. city. Police believed Garner was selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Garner’s repeated dying cries of “I can’t breathe!” became a rallying cry for the growing Black Lives Matter movement, which protests police brutality against blacks around the country.
Garner’s death, and the slow-moving investigations that followed, have generated some of the harshest criticisms of Mayor Bill de Blasio during his tenure and have spilled over into his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Protesters chanted “Fire Pantaleo!” during de Blasio’s opening statement in Wednesday’s presidential primary debate in Detroit.
The case tested the liberal mayor’s relationships with both civil rights activists, who have long complained that the city’s black and Latino residents are harassed by police, and the rank-and-file police officers who work for him, some of whom say they have been made scapegoats by his office.
“Today, we finally saw a step towards justice and accountability,” de Blasio told reporters at City Hall. “We saw a process that was actually fair and impartial, and I hope that this will now bring the Garner family a sense of closure and the beginning of some peace.”
The department immediately suspended Pantaleo without pay for 30 days, following standard practice, while the recommendation undergoes final review. The police commissioner is expected to follow the judge’s recommendation, CNN reported.
Firing was one of the few punishments available. A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in 2014 on criminal charges, and federal prosecutors declined last month to bring charges, saying there was insufficient evidence.
In 2015, New York City paid a $5.9 million settlement to Garner’s family to avoid a civil lawsuit.
De Blasio repeated his position that he would not say whether he believed Pantaleo should be fired.
Pantaleo is allowed to comment on the report before it is finalized and formally presented to Police Commissioner James O’Neill for a final decision.
Rosemarie Maldonado, a deputy police commissioner who oversees disciplinary hearings, reached her verdict after serving as the judge in Pantaleo’s disciplinary trial earlier this year.
Garner’s family welcomed Maldonado’s ruling but said it took far too long.
“This has been a long battle, five years too long,” Emerald Snipes Garner, one of Garner’s daughters, said at a news conference alongside the civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton. “And finally, somebody has said that there is some information that this cop has done something wrong.”
Sharpton said the police commissioner should fire Pantaleo “immediately and unequivocally.”
“This is not justice for the Garner family, because justice for the Garner family would have been a federal proceeding or a criminal proceeding in the local court,” Sharpton said. The family still hoped to have the U.S. Congress hold hearings on the case, he said.
The powerful police labor union, the Police Benevolent Association, condemned the outcome and said the departmental judge had caved to “grandstanding politicians.”
“This decision is pure political insanity,” Patrick Lynch, the union’s president, said in a statement. “If it is allowed to stand, it will paralyze the NYPD for years to come.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James urged the police commissioner and the mayor to fire Pantaleo “to ensure our communities finally feel some semblance of justice.”
The mayor has said he regrets his decision to postpone disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo for what would become several years while a U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation was ongoing.
He reversed course last year, saying he would no longer wait for the Justice Department, and ordered the police department to begin the internal disciplinary trial.
During that trial, prosecutors from the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, an oversight agency, argued that Pantaleo should be fired for using a banned chokehold. Pantaleo’s lawyers argued that Garner himself, not the officer, was to blame for his death, and that Pantaleo followed his training and orders from senior police.
Evidence “was more than sufficient to prove that Pantaleo is unfit to serve,” CCRB Chairman Fred Davie said in a statement. “Commissioner O’Neill must uphold this verdict and dismiss Pantaleo from the Department….”
A lawyer for Pantaleo did not respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Matthew Lavietes; editing by Dan Grebler and Cynthia Osterman)