Garner’s death on a sidewalk during an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, and his gasped final words “I can’t breathe” caught on bystander video, played a key role in the rise of the movement decrying excessive use of force by police officers against black men and teens in the United States.
Garner’s family immediately blasted the decision clearing Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Garner in a prohibited chokehold, in a news conference as a betrayal.
U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue confirmed the decision at a news conference.
“The Department of Justice has reached the conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the police officers who arrested Eric Garner in Staten Island on July 17th of 2014, acted in violation of the federal criminal civil rights act,” he said. “Consequently, the investigation into this incident, has been closed.”
A lengthy Department of Justice review of the incident did not reach a conclusive determination as to whether Pantaleo willfully committed misconduct.
U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr made the ultimate call, siding with federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, who had not wanted to charge Pantaleo, over the department’s civil rights division, which had wanted to bring charges, Donoghue said.
After meeting with federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, members of Garner’s family held a news conference with civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton.
“The DOJ has failed us,” said Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, adding that she wanted to see Pantaleo fired. “Five years ago, my son said ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times, and today we can’t breathe because they let us down.”
A New York grand jury in 2014 declined to charge Pantaleo, who has been assigned to desk duty since Garner’s death and faced a disciplinary trial in May at New York City Police Department headquarters.
A departmental judge is due to make her recommendations to New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill, who will then ultimately decide whether to punish Pantaleo. He could lose vacation days or be fired.
The NYPD said its disciplinary process on Pantaleo will not be affected by the federal prosecutors’ decision.
In 2015, New York City officials agreed to pay Garner’s family an out-of-court settlement of $5.9 million to resolve a wrongful death lawsuit.
The incident, and other high-profile police killings of black men and teens in cities including Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, set off a wave of nationwide protests in 2014 and 2015.
(Production: Roselle Chen)