In 2014, the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after an encounter with New York Police Department officers that was captured on video, called national attention to the ways black men and women are mistreated by law enforcement.
Garner’s death helped fuel the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and now, nearly five years later, the NYPD officer who played a key role in that fatal encounter is undergoing a disciplinary hearing.
Daniel Pantaleo, 33, was accused of using a department-prohibited chokehold to restrain Garner on July 17, 2014. His administrative trial — an extended disciplinary hearing that will culminate in a judge recommending if the officer should lose his badge — is being overseen by the NYPD, and began in New York City on May 13. It’s a disciplinary trial rather than a criminal one, meaning that the most serious consequence Pantaleo can face is losing his job.
In 2014, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on criminal charges for Garner’s death, a decision that was heavily criticized by activists and sparked protests in December 2014. The NYPD initially argued that it could not pursue disciplinary action against the officer until a federal investigation into Garner’s death was completed, but as that investigation continues to drag on with no updates, city officials announced in 2018 that Pantaleo would finally receive an administrative trial this year.
In the first three days of the administrative trial this week, the prosecution argued that Pantaleo used a chokehold on Garner, and intended to restrict the man’s breathing. The defense has countered that Garner ultimately died due to poor health and that Pantaleo did not use a chokehold, but was instead attempting to restrain Garner with a different technique that police officers are taught during training.
The trial is expected to last until the end of next week, and marks the first time that the public will hear key details about the aftermath of Garner’s death (the previous grand jury process was sealed). Garner’s family says that a decision to terminate Pantaleo’s employment is one of the last remaining ways he can face consequences for Garner’s 2014 death.
”It’s been five years — five years we’ve been on the front lines trying to get justice,” Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, told supporters on Monday. “They’re still trying to sweep it under the rug.“
Eric Garner’s death, briefly explained
On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, was confronted by police officers on a street corner in Staten Island, New York, for allegedly selling untaxed loose cigarettes. When Garner pulled away from an officer, he was allegedly placed in a chokehold by Pantaleo. After being lowered to the ground, Garner was restrained by several officers.
In a video taken by Ramsey Orta, a friend of Garner’s and a bystander at the scene, Garner could be heard telling officers, “I can’t breathe” 11 times. NYPD officers later called an ambulance for Garner after noticing his breathing difficulty, but additional video showed that he was not given oxygen for several minutes after the paramedics arrived.
Garner was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital. An autopsy confirmed that he died of a heart attack and that while Garner had dealt with obesity and asthma, the chokehold and the pressure officers applied to his chest while pinning him to the ground also played a role.
Pantaleo was the only person charged with causing Garner’s death, but a grand jury declined to indict him in December 2014. At least one other officer involved in the incident will face a departmental trial in the coming months.
Prosecutors say Pantaleo’s actions led to Garner’s death. The defense says Garner is to blame.
The administrative trial hinges on two main questions. The first is if Pantaleo used a chokehold, a maneuver that has been banned by the NYPD since 1993, when he restrained Garner.
The second is if Pantaleo intentionally restricted Garner’s breathing in the moments after the two men fell to the ground and the officer maintained the hold for 15 seconds.
On both of these points, the prosecution argues that the answer is yes.
”Eric Garner didn’t swing or hit any of these officers. There were three other officers there that didn’t use a chokehold,” prosecutor Jonathan Fogel, who is representing the city’s civilian complaint review board, said on Monday. “This officer didn’t let go even after Mr. Garner fell to the ground … when he locked his hands together, it became more than reckless.”
Orta, Garner’s friend who recorded the video of the police encounter that went viral, agreed that Garner had done nothing wrong in the moments before Pantaleo restrained him. As Orta discussed the video showing Garner’s death, Garner’s mother and sister left the courtroom.
Other witnesses for the prosecution also agreed that Garner was placed in a chokehold. On Wednesday, a medical examiner said that Pantaleo “set into motion a lethal sequence of events,” when he attempted to restrain Garner. He showed pictures of an autopsy performed shortly after Garner died from a heart attack and said that trauma to Garner’s body was consistent with signs of strangulation.
The defense, which is expected to fully lay out its case next week, has largely countered that Garner died because of his health and that Pantaleo’s efforts to restrain Garner did not cause the man to go into cardiac arrest. Pantaleo’s lawyer has also argued that his client never used a chokehold, but instead used a “seatbelt” technique taught during department training. Garner “was a ticking time bomb and set these facts in motion by resisting arrest,” Pantaleo’s lawyer Stuart London said at the beginning of the trial.
Even so, the first day of the defense on Thursday only led to more scrutiny for the officers involved in the incident. One particularly noteworthy testimony on Thursday revealed that NYPD Lt. Christopher Bannon texted another officer that the incident with Garner was “not a big deal,” drawing gasps in the courtroom and heated objections from members of Garner’s family.
Bannon has countered that he was not dismissing Garner’s death, but was instead trying to calm his officers. As more details are revealed in the coming days, it’s likely the NYPD will face additional scrutiny for the way it handled Garner’s death.
On a broader scale, as the administrative trial continues, people across the country are waiting to see how one of the highest-profile police violence cases in recent years will be resolved. Garner’s family says that ultimately, their family’s fight for justice will not end with this case.
“It was at least a dozen more [officers] who just did nothing, or either they pounced on him, they choked him, they filed false reports,” Garner’s mother said in an interview with the New York Times before the trial began. “It’s about all of those officers who committed an injustice that day, and they all need to stand accountable.”