The New York Police Department has fired the officer caught on video with his arm around the neck of 43-year-old Eric Garner just before he died in 2014, capping a five-year legal saga over the death that fueled a movement to change how police treat minorities.
NYPD Commissioner James P. O'Neill announced the decision Monday, weeks after a departmental disciplinary judge recommended that the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, be terminated. Pantaleo's union said it would try to overturn the decision.
"In this case the unintended consequence of Mr. Garner's death must have a consequence of its own," said O'Neill. "It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer."
O'Neill called the decision "extremely difficult," acknowledging that the move probably would anger rank-and-file officers. "If I was still a cop, I'd probably be mad at me," he said.
On the video recording of Garner's death, he is seen being grabbed by officers and pulled down to the sidewalk after he insisted they should not arrest him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. On the video, he can be heard saying, "I can't breathe," and his dying words became a rallying cry for protesters demanding changes in policing.
"Cops have to make choices, sometimes very quickly," said O'Neill. "Those decisions are scrutinized and second-guessed, both fairly and unfairly ... I can tell you that had I been in Officer Pantaleo's situation, I may have made similar mistakes."
O'Neill said he reached two conclusions watching the video — that Garner should not have resisted arrest, particularly given that complying with the officers probably would have resulted in a summons, not arrest; and that Pantaleo started the interaction using approved techniques but then escalated to a prohibited chokehold.
"Today is a day of reckoning, but it can also be a day of reconciliation," the commissioner said.
The case sparked local and federal investigations, both of which ended with no charges filed against Pantaleo or the other officers involved.
Members of Garner's family, frustrated by the lack of criminal charges, said they were pleased the city had fired Pantaleo as they had demanded but called for further government action.
One of his daughters, Emerald Garner, thanked the NYPD commissioner for firing Pantaleo but said more needs to be done, including reopening the criminal investigation of her father's death and making police chokeholds illegal to prevent similar incidents.
"It took five years for the officer to be fired. I don't want another Eric Garner," she said. "Yes, he's fired, but the fight is not over. We will continue to fight." She also called for congressional hearings into police conduct.
"We are relieved but not celebratory," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who supported the family's push for punishment. "You cannot have a set of rules for citizens and a different set of rules for policemen. They must follow the law and follow policy."
The union representing New York officers, the Police Benevolent Association, blasted the NYPD's decision and suggested its members will have to shy away from confrontations, making the city less safe.
"The damage is already done. The NYPD will remain rudderless and frozen, and Commissioner O'Neill will never be able to bring it back," said PBA President Patrick Lynch. "We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed 'reckless' just for doing their job."
Pantaleo's lawyer, Stuart London, said his client, a 13-year veteran of the NYPD, is disappointed and upset about the decision but plans to appeal it. "We are looking for him to get his job back," London said.
Union officials said NYPD brass had been negotiating with Pantaleo's lawyers for him to resign with vested pension benefits as recently as late last week, but that police officials rescinded that offer over the weekend.
New York City officials blamed the Justice Department for the long delay in reaching a decision on Pantaleo's job, saying they had deferred to Washington where two administrations dithered on reaching a conclusion in their federal civil rights investigation of the incident.
"Today will not bring Eric Garner back," said Mayor Bill de Blasio. "But I hope it brings some small measure of closure and peace to the Garner family."