NEW YORK (Reuters) – The disciplinary trial of the New York City police officer who put Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, in a fatal chokehold will begin on Monday, nearly five years after widely seen video of the death sparked a national outcry about policing tactics.
Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, could be fired after the conclusion of what is expected to be a 10-day trial at the New York Police Department’s headquarters in Manhattan. The ultimate decision will rest with New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill.
The case will be closely watched by civil rights activists who say too few police officers face consequences for using deadly force and those, including New York City’s powerful police officers’ union, who defend officers for doing a dangerous job.
Pantaleo, 33, has been assigned to a desk job since the deadly encounter on a sidewalk in the borough of Staten Island in 2014, when he and other officers tried to arrest Garner on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.
In videos recorded on bystanders’ cellphones, Garner can be seen arguing with the officers before Pantaleo puts his arm around Garner’s neck and brings him down to the sidewalk as other officers move in to restrain Garner.
Garner, who was 43, can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he dies. The phrase became a rallying cry in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to end the disproportionate use of deadly force against nonwhite people by U.S. police departments.
A Staten Island grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo later in 2014, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into the death. Garner’s family has criticized that investigation as it has stretched into its fourth year without resolution.
The city’s Civilian Complaints Review Board (CCRB), which prosecutes certain violations of police rules, determined in 2017 that Pantaleo used excessive force.
Last July, the city said it would no longer wait for the Justice Department investigation to conclude before beginning the disciplinary trial.
CCRB prosecutors will argue the case before a judge from the office of the police department’s deputy commissioner of trials.
“We are confident that, once all the evidence has been presented, the Police Commissioner will find Officer Pantaleo guilty of misconduct and ultimately terminate him from the Department,” CCRB Chairman Fred Davie said in a statement last week.
Although New York City’s chief medical examiner ruled that Garner was killed in part by a chokehold compressing his neck, Pantaleo’s lawyer and his union have said it was not a chokehold as defined by the police department, which has long banned the maneuver.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Jonathan Oatis)