Federal prosecutors recommended that a New York City police officer be charged with civil rights violations in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, but top Justice Department officials are reluctant to pursue the case, The New York Times reported on Friday.
The Staten Island man’s death prompted nationwide outrage after video footage showed NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo placing the struggling Garner in a chokehold, as he cried out his dying words, “I can’t breathe.”
Pantaleo and his fellow officers had been attempting to arrest Garner on suspicion that he was illegally selling loose cigarettes.
Career prosecutors had sought approval from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to indict Pantaleo on civil rights charges, but no decision has been made despite several meetings on the issue, three current and former officials told The Times.
One law-enforcement official told The Times that the tone of the discussions suggested top officials believe the case is unwinnable and Rosenstein was unlikely to approve the charges. The officials said Attorney General Jeff Sessions was briefed on the issue.
A state grand jury in New York previously declined to indict Pantaleo, prompting the Justice Department under the Obama administration to launch its own investigation that the Trump administration inherited.
But the inquiry has been plagued with infighting between federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York, who are reluctant to pursue charges, and civil rights prosecutors at the Justice Department in Washington, DC, who say the case is a clear example of excessive force.
Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, accused the Justice Department in a statement on Friday of “playing political games with the murder of my son.” Carr said officials told her last summer that a decision on the charges would be made by late 2017.
“If the Trump administration’s Justice Department doesn’t hold NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo and others who killed my son accountable by prosecution and conviction, then they are failing to uphold law-and-order for the sake of politics,” Carr said.
She also urged the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio to fire Pantaleo, who remains employed at the department and has been working desk duty since Garner’s death.
The Justice Department under Sessions’ leadership has preferred to avoid federal intervention in police shootings, and Sessions has said he does not believe excessive force incidents or racial bias are systemic issues.
But Sessions has also previously acknowledged the waning trust and confidence in police among black Americans, and the amount of fatal shootings and instances of police brutality that have received national attention.
“We all know the cases of the last several years where, in confrontations with police, lives have been cut short,” Sessions said in a speech to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives in August 2017. “Just as I am committed to defending law enforcement who use deadly force while lawfully engaged in their work, I will also hold any officer responsible breaking the law.”
Authored by Janine Maureen