John Bacon, USA TODAY
Published 12:45 p.m. ET Aug. 19, 2019 | Updated 4:18 p.m. ET Aug. 19, 2019
Eric Garner’s cry of “I can’t breathe” became a battle cry for the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill’s decision to fire the officer who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold moments before his death on a New York City street drew outrage Monday from the police union and a guarded “thank you” from one of Garner’s children.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, was accused of placing a banned chokehold on Garner while arresting him outside a Staten Island convenience store in 2014. Garner’s repeated cries of “I can’t breathe” became a battle cry for the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.
“I can tell you that had I been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation, I may have made similar mistakes,” O’Neill, who served as a uniformed officer for more than three decades, said at a press conference Monday. “But none of us can take back our decisions, particularly when they result in the death of another human being.”
The case may not be closed, however. Stuart London, Pantaleo’s lawyer, said he would likely go to court to get his client’s job back.
Police union President Patrick Lynch expressed outrage at O’Neill’s decision, accusing the commissioner of “cringing in fear” of anti-police activists and leaving the department “rudderless and frozen” by a lack of leadership.
“He has chosen politics and his own self-interest over the police officers he claims to lead,” Lynch said.
An autopsy found Garner’s death was caused in part by the chokehold and the case was ruled a homicide. O’Neill said Pantaleo was correct when he initially used the chokehold, but that when Garner was under control he should have switched to a “less lethal” alternative.
A local grand jury and federal prosecutors declined to charge Pantaleo. On Aug 2, however, a departmental trial judge recommended the 13-year department veteran be fired.
“Mr. Garner was somebody’s son, somebody’s dad,” O’Neill said. “Everybody in the NYPD understands that.”
Garner’s daughter, Emerald, said the decision doesn’t mean an end to the case. She said she wants congressional hearings, will continue to push to have a criminal case reopened and wants other officers involved in the arrest held accountable.
“Commissioner O’Neill, I thank you for doing the right thing,” she said a press conference. “You finally made the decision that should have been made five years ago.”
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Activist Carmen Perez, a co-founder of the Women’s March and CEO of The Gathering for Justice, called Pantaleo a “dishonest officer” but said his firing “provides cover to the NYPD to continue resisting our continues calls for more accountability and transparency.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio saw it a different way, saying the decision shows the NYPD is willing to police its own.
“Our officers are here to protect us, to keep us safe, and yet we watch a man die, (and) so many people ask ‘What if that was my brother right there in that situation, what if it was my son, what if that was my father, what if that was me?” de Blasio said. “Justice has been done.”
Garner, 43, was accused of illegally selling single cigarettes outside the convenience store when officers attempted to arrest him in a struggle captured on video. Garner gasped repeatedly that he could not breathe after Pantaleo and other officers knocked him to the ground.
The video became a social media phenomenon that triggered protests and charges of police brutality.
The city paid a $5.9 million settlement to the estate of the married father of six children. O’Neill said Monday there were “no victors” in the case.
“If I was a police officer, I probably would not be happy,” O’Neill said. “But someone calls for help, dials 911, somebody flags them down, they are not going to think about this decision.”