No Federal Charges in Eric Garner’s Death at Hands of New York Police

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There will be no federal charges filed against New York Police Department (NYPD) officers responsible for a confrontation with Eric Garner that turned deadly years ago, all over the sale of black market cigarettes.

Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Garner, who was captured on video in Staten Island getting choked by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo during an attempt to arrest the man on suspicion that he was selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Garner’s wheezing of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for activism and protests about the way police officers treat black men. His death, a result of an asthma attack, was attributed to Pantaleo’s chokehold and the pressure put on the man’s body.

So far, no actual punishment has been visited upon Pantaleo or any of the officers involved in Garner’s death. Back in 2014, Staten Island’s district attorney sent the case to a grand jury, but they declined to indict. At the same time, the Department of Justice began investigating separately to consider whether to bring federal civil rights charges against any of the officers involved.

Today’s announcement brings an end to the possibility that there will be any criminal consequences for Pantaleo. The New York Times reports that leaders within the Justice Department were not in agreement over whether to prosecute. Eric Holder, who was attorney general when Garner died, wanted to prosecute. Loretta Lynch, who was the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn (and who would succeed Holder as attorney general), disagreed, though attorneys with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Lynch recommended charges.

The case then stalled under President Trump’s Department of Justice, and officials eventually ended up believing they would lose the case if they brought charges, according to the Times. Attorney General William Barr reportedly made the final call not to move forward with charges.

In the meantime, New York City itself was using the federal investigation as a reason for dragging its feet about what to do about Pantaleo. Just because he wasn’t being charged with a crime didn’t mean he couldn’t be disciplined or fired for his behavior. But it wasn’t until this summer that the NYPD finally got around to an administrative hearing to figure out what, if anything, to do about Pantaleo. That decision has not yet been made, and thanks to New York’s secrecy laws around police misconduct, any punishment handed to Pantaleo might not be made public, though it will most certainly be leaked.

In the meantime, showing they’ve learned absolutely nothing about why black markets exist and why Garner had a history of selling loose cigarettes, the city under Mayor Bill de Blasio has raised cigarette prices further and, starting this year, banned drug stores and markets that have pharmacies from selling tobacco products.

The end result is that more than half of all cigarettes consumed in the Big Apple are likely smuggled into the city. There are a lot of Garners out there on the streets of New York and, if there are no consequences for Pantaleo, citizens should have every reason to fear this will happen again.


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