On Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced that it would not bring federal charges against a New York Police Department Officer who choked Eric Gardner to death five years ago in what many are calling a prime example of police brutality in America. The timing of the decision was acknowledged by everyone as it came one day before the five-year anniversary of the event but hours after President Trump had told four female senators of color to “go back where you come from.” The government’s decision results in Officer Daniel Pantaleo never facing criminal charges for Garner’s death in a court of law. Pantaleo is still on duty with NYPD at this time though at a "desk job."
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Mr. Richard Donoghue, said that after an exhaustive investigation the DOJ had no choice but to come to this conclusion. To bring charges the government would have had to prove that Pantaleo violated civil rights law, which would mean employing unreasonable force against Gardner and proving that Pantaleo willfully broke the law. “Mr. Garner’s death was a terrible tragedy. But having thoroughly investigated the surrounding circumstances, the Department has concluded that the available evidence would not support federal civil rights charges against any officer,” Donoghue explained to reporters. “We know and understand that some will be disappointed by this decision, but it is the conclusion that is compelled by the evidence and the law.” In 2014, a grand jury convened in Staten Island, New York also refused bring state criminal charges against Pantaleo.
Insiders in the White House have stated that Donoghue’s decision took so long because of conflict in President Trump’s Justice Department among prosecutors in the Civil Rights Division versus top agency officials. Eventually, prosecutors determined that Pantaleo correctly employed a chokehold on Garner for about seven seconds. DOJ disagreed with the cause of death pronounced by the City’s medical examiner. This individual found the death to be a homicide produced by the chokehold. However, DOJ found evidence of an underlying medical condition which may have contributed to the ultimate result. At the end of the day, Attorney General William Barr ultimately decided not to bring charges. Donoghue remarked that Bar called the decision "difficult" to make.
Further clouding the issue is that Pantaleo now may face disciplinary proceedings from NYPD. Ultimately, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio may weigh on the issue. Currently, Mayor de Blasio is running for the democratic nomination for President. Many from the African American community have questioned the ability of de Blasio to be the nominee and keep Pantaleo on the force. Of course, others are watching to see if the mayor will cave into pressure to appeal to a base needed to secure the nomination.
Only time will tell what ultimately happens with Pantaleo’s job. But with both state and federal prosecution no longer on the table, it seems even if the officer is fired, many will find it a hollow victory. No matter what your take on the case, clearly it is yet another example of how race plays an integral part in the issues surrounding the 2020 election.
-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy