Just over five years ago, on Bay Street in Staten Island, New York City police officers confronted Eric Garner on suspicion of selling unlicensed cigarettes. As the situation escalated, Officer Daniel Pantaleo wrapped his arms around Garner in a maneuver that became a choke hold, one banned by the police department in which he served. Garner said, 11 times, “I can’t breathe.” His pleas were ignored, and he died on that street on July 17, 2014.
We know this because we’ve seen it. Because it was caught on film and grabbed the attention of the country, pushing forward a movement for racial justice and police reform that is changing conversation and policy.
But that movement has still not seen any justice for the man whose last words became a rallying cry. His killer, Pantaleo, has not been held accountable.
And no matter what Department of Justice prosecutors ruled, no matter what this administration says in response, there have been opportunities for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to take action against the man who heard Garner’s cries, 11 times, and ignored them.
Here are 11 times the de Blasio administration failed to act:
1. July 18, 2014. While the mayor cannot directly fire an NYPD officer, he has the immediate authority to suspend an officer for up to 30 days. We know this because two years later, an officer was suspended just days after an encounter in which he blamed his decision to give a ticket on the mayor. Even Mayor Rudy Giuliani suspended officers for misconduct. If an offhand remark against the mayor merits suspension, surely Pantaleo’s use of force meets that mark. Yet no suspension was coming, and none has come to this day. We’re in a bad place if we’re saying, “At least be like Rudy.”
2. Two weeks after the incident, the city’s medical examiner ruled Eric Garner’s death a homicide and that the cause of death was neck compression from a choke hold. That choke hold was caught on camera—we knew then that an officer could commit a homicide and remain on the force.
3. One month later, an independent forensic pathologist confirmed those findings to the grieving Garner family. In this time, there have been countless demonstrations demanding that Pantaleo be fired and be charged for the homicide he was found to have committed. Those protests have resulted in zero actions against Pantaleo.
4. In December of 2014, nearly six months after Eric Garner was killed, a grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to indict Pantaleo. This verdict ignited outrage and demonstrations, even led to Attorney General Eric Holder supporting a federal civil rights investigation, but the leader who could still take immediate action, Mayor de Blasio, declined and deferred to Washington.
5. Near the first anniversary of Eric Garner’s death, his family settled a lawsuit with New York City and received $5.9 million. Money is not justice, though, and the de Blasio administration still did nothing to hold Pantaleo accountable.
6. About two years after his killing Garner, Pantaleo received not a pink slip but a raise. He is making more money now than on the day Garner died.
7. In April of last year, federal prosecutors recommended charging Pantaleo. The Trump administration’s DOJ, under Jeff Sessions, went further than a supposedly progressive New York City administration was willing to go. Knowing Trump’s racist views and distorted “law and order” message, de Blasio was still content to let the federal government handle the case, and he took no action himself.
8, 9, 10, 11. Despite the de Blasio administration’s best efforts to keep NYPD records hidden, we now know that Pantaleo had previously received seven disciplinary complaints and 14 individual allegations against him. An independent review board substantiated four of the accusations. While it’s unclear exactly what these allegations were, it seems that Pantaleo’s treatment of Garner was not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of behavior of someone who was still escaping significant discipline. It’s often said about an incident of police misconduct that such actions are perpetrated by a fraction of officers—a few bad apples in bad situations. But a bad apple gets thrown out, and Pantaleo’s continued presence on the force points to systemic issues at the core.
But there is a new opportunity now for de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill to finally take action—a 12th cry for help that Garner himself never got to give. The Department of Justice is not pursuing charges against Pantaleo, but the City still has the power to act. Pantaleo faced a disciplinary trial just two months ago, and the decision now rests with Commissioner O’Neill, a de Blasio appointee.
The mayor wants to be on the national stage—and now, the nation’s eyes are on him. If Pantaleo is on the force, de Blasio should not be on the ticket. If de Blasio wants to run for president, he cannot run from this issue, or from Eric Garner’s family, who are still looking for justice.