On Tuesday, July 16, the Justice Department announced that it will not bring criminal civil rights charges against New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. Garner was 43 when he was killed in July 2014, after officers including Pantaleo used force while arresting him for selling loose cigarettes. The announcement that no federal charges would be filed came the day before the five-year anniversary of Garner's death.
"There is nothing in the video to suggest that Officer Pantaleo intended or attempted to place Mr. Garner in a chokehold," US Attorney Richard P. Donoghue told CNN.
Garner's death gained national attention after it was recorded by his friend Ramsey Orta. In the widely-shared video, Pantaleo can be seen wrapping his arm around Garner's neck, and Garner can be heard pleading for his life, repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe" in the moments before his death. Those final words became a rallying cry in the months afterwards, as protests over whether Pantaleo had used excessive force during Garner's arrest spread across New York City and the country.
During Pantaleo's NYPD disciplinary hearing for the incident in June 2019, a medical examiner testified that the pressure the officer applied on Garner's neck had caused a fatal asthma attack, according to the New York Times. The outcome of Pantaleo's disciplinary hearing has not yet been determined, but as of now, he is on desk duty without a gun or badge, a position that has allowed him to earn higher pay and better benefits.
None of the officers involved in Garner's death have been charged or convicted of any crime related to his death. A grand jury previously declined to bring charges against Pantaleo. And now, the latest news that he would not face federal charges has crushed many people — including Garner's family, who fought a five-year battle to get New York and the federal government to hold the NYPD accountable for Garner's death. After being informed on Tuesday morning that that would not be happening, Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, expressed her reaction on social media.
"Five years ago, my son said 'I can't breathe' 11 times, and today we can't breathe, because they let us down," Carr said during a press conference following the Justice Department's decision. She added that her family would keep fighting to hold the officers involved in Garner's death accountable.
“We might not never know justice in the D.O.J., but I think there will be justice, and we’re going to keep fighting,” Carr said, as reported by the Times. “We’re not going away, so you can forget that.”
The news that Pantaleo will face no federal criminal charges in Garner's death has also sparked outrage in public figures ranging from rapper Common to presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren, the latter of whom called the Justice Department's decision an "injustice."
Others have pointed out that the only person jailed in relation to the death of Garner was Orta, the man who recorded the incident. Orta began filming as soon as Garner was approached by police. He is currently serving a four-year sentence for weapons and drugs charges, and is due to be released this December.
Just two days before the Justice Department announced that it would not file charges against Pantaleo, Garner's family gathered by his grave. Garner is buried next to his daughter Erica, who died of heart failure in 2017 after spending three years as an activist fighting for justice for her father's death. At the gathering, Reverend Al Sharpton called the decision not to bring charges against Pantaleo "a moral disgrace and judicial malpractice."
The lack of accountability in Garner's case is just one more example of a shameful trend seen throughout the last decade. In 2014, months after Garner's death, Ferguson teenager Michael Brown, who was unarmed, was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson. Wilson was not indicted in the shooting. In November 2014, meanwhile, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot to death by Cleveland, Ohio police officer Timothy Loehmann. Loehmann now works for a different Ohio police department.