Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill makes an announcement at New York City Police Dept. headquarters, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
The New York Police Department has fired the white officer who used a deadly chokehold on a black man while trying to arrest him in 2014, an incident that helped fuel the "Black Lives Matter" movement in response to police use of force.
The case, made famous by Eric Garner's plaintive cries of "I can't breathe" with officer Daniel Pantaleo's arm wrapped around his neck, tore at the NYPD for five long years while the US dealt with a series of other cases of white officers killing unarmed African-American men.
Mobile phone video captured Pantaleo using a banned chokehold on Garner on a Staten Island footpath during an attempted arrest for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
A local grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo and the US Justice Department opted not to prosecute, but Pantaleo was suspended earlier this month when a departmental judge ruled that the officer should be fired. He had been on desk duty since the incident on July 17, 2014.
Commissioner James O'Neill, in announcing the firing, said he had been thinking about the case ever since he assumed the top job in 2016, weighing how Garner resisted arrest and, in his view, Pantaleo acted properly up until the moment he applied the chokehold after the two men fell to the ground.
"Every time I watched the video, I say to myself, as probably all of you do, to Mr Garner: 'Don't do it. Comply.' To Officer Pantaleo: 'Don't do it,'" O'Neill said.
O'Neill repeatedly returned to the empathy he had for Pantaleo, having himself been a uniformed officer for 34 years. "That could possibly be me... I may have made similar mistakes," O'Neill said.
Police went into the neighbourhood to enforce a series of petty crimes that reduced the quality of life in the neighbourhood, O'Neill said. He also said he understood some police officers would be angry with him for not supporting one of their own.
But in the end, O'Neill said, he could not overlook that Pantaleo applied the chokehold despite having received sufficient police training that such a hold was barred, resulting in what he called "an irreversible tragedy".
The head of the police union immediately condemned the decision, saying the commissioner gave in to political pressure and that his decision would put officers at greater risk.
"It is absolutely essential that the world know that the New York Police Department is rudderless and frozen," Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, told a news conference on Monday. "The leadership has abandoned ship and left our street officers on the street alone, without backing.
"This mayor needs to be removed. The police commissioner needs to know he has lost the police department," Lynch said.
Garner's death, and the slow-moving investigations that followed, have generated some of the harshest criticisms of Mayor Bill de Blasio during his tenure and have spilled over into his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The case tested the liberal mayor's relationships with both civil rights activists, who have long complained that the city's black and Latino residents are harassed by police, and the rank-and-file police officers who work for him, some of whom say they have been made scapegoats by his office.
"There was a fair and impartial process and justice was done," de Blasio told a news conference.
Garner's daughter Emerald Garner disagreed that justice was done. She wore a T-shirt with "MURDERER" emblazoned across the front as she appeared at a news conference with civil rights leader Al Sharpton.
"Officer Pantaleo, well, now I can say Daniel Pantaleo, is a murderer and that's just how I feel," Emerald Garner said. "I wear my emotions on my sleeve and now I wear it on my chest."
In 2015, New York City paid a $US5.9 million settlement to Garner's family to avoid a civil lawsuit.
© RAW 2019