The United States Department of Justice will not issue civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the New York Police Department officer accused of fatally choking Eric Garner, saying the evidence did not support such charges.
The decision was made on Tuesday, one day before the fifth anniversary of Garner's death and the deadline for the federal government to file charges against the officer.
On July 17th, 2014, Pantaleo and other officers were sent by a superior to arrest Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes, and when he resisted, Pantaleo wrapped an arm around Garner's neck and brought him to the ground, compressing his chest into the ground with the weight of other officers on top of him. Garner died of cardiac arrest soon after arriving at the hospital.
Bystanders, including Garner's friend Ramsey Orta (who is now in prison), captured the event on video. The clip—in which Garner says "I can't breathe" as Pantaleo appears to have him in a chokehold (a maneuver prohibited by the NYPD)—went viral, and Garner's last words became a rallying cry for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement.
The New York City Medical Examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide caused by neck compressions from a chokehold, though some parties have argued that the neck compressions were due to lifesaving maneuvers and that Garner's heart attack was due to heart disease exacerbated by his encounter with the police.
In December of 2014, a grand jury in Staten Island found "no reasonable cause" to indict Pantaleo with homicide charges, though former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal authorities would conduct a civil rights investigation. New York City also paid the Garner family $5.9 million in 2015 to settle a wrongful death claim.
What Did the Investigation Conclude?
Attorney General William Barr announced the conclusion of the civil rights investigation Tuesday. Barr ended a dispute between New York prosecutors and the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division about whether or not it could be concluded that Pantaleo acted willfully, beyond a reasonable doubt, to harm Garner by choking him.
"This is the highest standard of intent imposed by law," Richard P. Donoghue, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a news conference Tuesday, according to CNN. "While willfulness may be inferred from blatantly wrongful conduct such as a gratuitous hit to the head, an officer's mistake, fear, misperception or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct under federal criminal civil rights law."
Why Didn't Pantaleo Face Charges for Using a Banned Chokehold?
Pantaleo claims he did not use a chokehold or intend to put Garner in a position where his breathing would be restricted. In a recent disciplinary hearing, his lawyer argued Pantaleo used a "seatbelt" hold, a move that the NYPD allows and that does not cut off breathing. In addition, just because chokeholds are "prohibited," that does not mean they are illegal, so Pantaleo didn't violate any laws, and it is up to the NYPD to enforce that prohibition.
Why Did the Man Who Captured the Video Go to Prison?
In August of 2014, less than a month after Garner's death, Orta was arrested and later sentenced to four years in prison for drug charges and possession of a .25-caliber handgun. Orta and his supporters have maintained that Orta was targeted by the police and harassed for filming their deadly encounter with Eric Garner. "The cops had been following me every day since Eric died, shining lights in my house every night," Orta told the Verge. "You think I'm walking around with a stolen gun that now they say wasn't even loaded?”
Could Pantaleo Still Face Any Kind of Discipline?
While Pantaleo will not face criminal charges, the fate of his job is still in the hands of the NYPD, which launched disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo last July. A trial was held last month, and it could take up to two more months for an administrative judge to issue a decision, which could range from limiting vacation time to firing Pantaleo. Though he remains on the NYPD's payroll, he has been stripped of his gun and badge and has been on desk duty since the incident.