It only took 5 years, thousands of intense protests, years of civil unrest, multiple courts, juries, and judges, and a presidential election to get a cop fired for choking an innocent man to death.
In 2014, Eric Garner was approached by NYPD officers due to being suspected of committing the crime of reselling individual cigarettes without paying sales tax on them a 2nd time. Being that police officers are not judges and being that no jury was present on that Staten Island sidewalk, Garner could not possibly have been convicted of this crime. As such, we must refer to him as a ‘suspect’, because he was only accused by cops (not even formally charged by a prosecutor, yet) of committing this victimless crime.
In the video footage, Eric Garner is clearly seen being outnumbered and surrounded by armed NYPD officers. He can be heard denying the allegations that he sold loose cigarettes. “I’m tired of it….it stops today….Every time you see me, you wanna harass me…I’m minding my business, please just leave me alone…” you can hear Garner shout, implying that these officers have harassed him in the past. It seems that police may have used the pretense of ‘Garner breaking up a fight’ to justify this episode of harassment, but this remains unclear.
As the officers attempted to place the suspect in handcuffs, he calmly and mildly resists, lifting his arms up in the air, making it slightly more difficult for the officers to cuff him. Immediately, an officer comes from behind him and attempts to choke him with a standard headlock/chokehold – which is forbidden by NYPD policy. He is then taken to the ground by 4 cops. At this point, he was subdued, and any further physical damage he sustained was by definition a punishment and not required in the course of the arrest. As he is taken down, the officer maintains his chokehold on Garner, seemingly tightening it now that he has the leverage of being on Garner’s back (in grappling, being on a person’s back while they’re on the floor is the most advantageous and aggressive position, especially for finishing chokes). Officer Pantaleo continues to choke him as the other officers continue to pin him down, one of them with their knee on his head. Garner struggles to say repeatedly “I can’t breathe” as this occurs, and continues to do so with what sounds like “3-word dsyspnea” – a level of difficulty breathing in which a patient could only speak three words at a time before taking another breath – which would make sense, considering his obesity and asthma. An asthma attack could easily be triggered by physical activity or stress, both of which were present in this case. The officers clearly disregard his cries for help, which he used his final few breaths to make. As far as they’re concerned, he’s just another ‘perp’, he’s a bad person, and he’s resisting arrest, meaning that he ought to be punished. Within another minute or so, Garner was dead. Yes, asthma can and does kill that quickly.
Some time later, the cops call for an EMS crew, who also neglects to look for a pulse or breathing for their first few minutes on scene. They likely discovered that he was in cardiac arrest (read: dead) while transporting him to the hospital in the ambulance. Once CPR was initiated (assuming that that EMS crew even attempted to save the man they may have considered to be ‘just another perp’), it was too late. Garner was pronounced dead shortly afterward.
The NYC Medical Examiner – who is technically a coworker of the cop (being that they both work for the same company – New York City) ruled the death a homicide and found that Garner died as the result of a chokehold and prone (facedown) position that he was forced into during the struggle.
Soon after Garner was killed by police for allegedly committing a victimless crime, Americans throughout the US formed protests calling for justice. At the very least, the protests called for the officer whose illegal chokehold likely killed Garner to be disciplined. Little did they know that the NYPD’s union is so strong that it would take a presidential election, 5 years, and an entire cultural phenomenon to defeat them and bring the violent cop to justice. This killing (we’d refer to it as ‘murder’ if were not a crime to do so) was one of the catalysts for the movement now known as ‘Black Lives Matter’. While the movement does work to hold police accountable, it may neglect the many abuses that police commit against non-black individuals.
Did the NYPD regret killing an innocent (all humans in the US are presumed innocent until convicted in a court of law) father over allegedly selling a cigarette? No. In fact, they had rallies mocking his final words of “I can’t breathe”. NYPD cops created, distributed, and proudly wore shirts that said “I CAN BREATHE” on them in response to the police-accountability rallies that formed throughout NYC and the US, and eventually the world in response to Garner’s untimely death at the hands of overzealous cops.
During the July 31st Democratic Presidential Primary Debate, NYC Mayor, Bill DeBlasio seemed unable to escape the constant questions about his handling of the 2014 Eric Garner case. The NYC mayor was also interrupted by “fire Pantaleo” chants while speaking. Not surprisingly, DeBlasio deflected the questions and hilariously blamed the ordeal on President Trump (who didn’t take office until 2017). Perhaps as a result of the Democratic debates having very few meaningful moments other than the Garner questions, the case for firing the cop who killed an innocent black man 5 years prior returned to the forefront of the media cycle.
On August 2nd, the NY Post reported than an NYPD judge recommended that Pantaleo be fired. In 2014, a NYC court convened a grand jury, which resulted in Pantaleo not being indicted (charged) with a crime. The federal government also determined that Pantaleo is such a perfect person that he should not even be charged with a crime. The last chance for any discipline seemingly rested upon the NYPD judge’s recommendation. After the judge recommended firing Pantaleo, NYPD union boss, Patrick Lynch said the following, as reported by the NY Post:
“This decision is pure political insanity. If it is allowed to stand, it will paralyze the NYPD for years to come,” Police Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch said. “This judge ignored the evidence and trampled P.O. Pantaleo’s due process rights in order to deliver the result that the grandstanding politicians and protesters demanded.”
“The only hope for justice now lies with Police Commissioner O’Neill,” the police union boss said. “He knows the message that this decision sends to every cop: We are expendable, and we cannot expect any support from the city we protect. He knows that if he affirms this horrendous decision, he will lose his police department.”
On August 19th, Fox reported that the NYPD commissioner accepted the judge’s recommendation and fired Pantaleo, much to the chagrin of the NYPD’s union (which refers to itself as a ‘PBA’ because cops can’t legally unionize, technically).
If not for the thousands of BLM protests, the 5 years of police-accountability activism, and the presidential debate that DeBlasio happened to participate in, this tiny, negligible amount of justice would not have even occurred. Of course, had the choke not been captured so clearly by a bystander’s video camera, this case might not have even made the local news. If you don’t want the next murderous cop to get away with his crime for 5 years, or if you don’t want to rely on a presidential debate to bring about justice, or if you don’t think that the next murder will be caught on video and start an international movement, join us in holding police accountable and join one of the many police-accountability communities.