Nearly four years to the day after Eric Garner was fatally choked by a police officer on a street corner in Staten Island, the NYPD says it now plans to move forward with internal disciplinary proceedings against the officers involved in Garner's death. In a letter sent to the Department of Justice on Monday, NYPD lawyer Lawrence Byrne said the DOJ has until August 31st to bring criminal charges against the officers, or else the NYPD would go ahead with a long-delayed internal hearing.
But a spokesperson for the DOJ told Gothamist that the NYPD has had the green light to move forward with an internal trial for months now. “As officials at the Department of Justice informed Mr. Byrne this spring, the New York Police Department may move forward with their disciplinary proceedings as they deem appropriate,” the spokesperson told Gothamist late Monday. “Mr. Byrne’s letter does not have any bearing on the decision-making timeline at the Justice Department, and the Department cannot comment further at this time.”
Phillip Walzak, a spokesperson for the NYPD, flatly denied that was the case, adding that Byrne spoke with DOJ as recently as last week, and was not informed that they could proceed.
Asked about the Department of Justice's response, Jonathan Moore, an attorney for the Garner family, told Gothamist that he was surprised by the statement. "Once again, the family is the last one to know anything here," he said. "You've got to conclude that the city of New York does not care about what happened to Eric Garner, nor does the Justice Department. It's shameful."
Meanwhile, according to police reform experts and advocates, the city's announcement that it is moving forward with a trial amounts to little more than political theater, and does nothing to clear up the question of why the city continues to employ Officer Daniel Pantaleo and the other officers involved in the incident.
"There's no real urgency for NYPD to act other than that it's the anniversary and there's a lot of pissed off people still in the city," Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University who specializes in police accountability and criminal law, told Gothamist. "Why are they giving an ultimatum now? It doesn't make any sense, except for political reasons."
In the letter shared with the press on Monday, Byrne wrote, "Given the extraordinary passage of time since the incident without a final decision on the U.S. DOJ's criminal investigation, any further delay in moving ahead with our own disciplinary proceedings can no longer be justified." He added that the department would bring disciplinary proceedings "on or shortly after September 1" if the DOJ does not release a final decision in the next six weeks.
The announcement goes against the city's oft-repeated claim that it does not pursue such hearings if the Justice Department is requesting more time for their own investigation. While lamenting the lack of "speedy justice" in the Eric Garner case, Mayor Bill de Blasio has previously cited the precedent as a justification for not ordering the NYPD to open a disciplinary case against the officers. A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office declined to speak on the record about what's changed, and why the city waited exactly four years to push for this hearing.
According to the activist group Communities United for Police Reform, the apparent change of heart "lays bare the lie that the NYPD's hands were tied from disciplining officers," and serves only as "more political theater by the de Blasio administration and NYPD to distract from the fact that four years after Eric Garner was killed, they have failed to hold any of the multiple officers responsible for the killing and related misconduct accountable."
Daniel Pantaleo, who was seen on video administering an illegal chokehold on Garner, remains employed by the NYPD. A grand jury declined to indict him in 2014. Two years later, the Civilian Complaint Review Board determined he should face department charges for the use of the chokehold—though no further action was taken. He's been on desk duty since Garner's death, and reportedly received a $20,000 raise in 2016, bringing his annual salary to $119,996.
Pantaleo also has a lengthy history of misconduct, and had seven pending complaints against him at the time of the fatal arrest, according to documents leaked by a city employee.
"There is no reason that the NYPD could not have moved sooner to hold the officers involved in the killing of Eric Garner accountable," said Johanna Miller, advocacy director at NYCLU. "Not doing so, for years now, has given the appearance of complete impunity at the NYPD, which, given its size and influence, has a ripple effect to police departments across the country. The public deserves to see swift, transparent, and definitive investigations and actions by the police department when officers kill civilians."
The internal NYPD hearing is not a criminal trial, and thus could not result in criminal charges being brought against Pantaleo. At worst, he could end up losing his job—though even then, it's unlikely that the public would be made aware of the arguments and evidence presented during the hearing, according to Fagan.
"They want to make a big splash, and want to show they're responsive...but I don't know if it's going to be reassuring for the Garner family," added Fagan. "We know that discipline at the NYPD is not particularly stiff."