NYPD officer involved in Eric Garner's death fired

NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo was "untruthful" and "self-serving," a judge said.

August 19, 2019, 8:13 PM

More than five years after the death of Eric Garner was captured on cell phone video, the officer responsible for causing his death was terminated from New York City's Police Department.

Since July 17, 2014, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo has waited to learn whether he can remain on the force with the plainclothes anti-crime unit, lose vacations days or lose his job entirely.

Months after a disciplinary trial in May and June this year, Deputy Commissioner of Trials Judge Rosemarie Maldonado recommended to Police Commissioner James O'Neill that Pantaleo be removed from the force.

O'Neill announced Monday that Pantaleo was to be immediately terminated.

"It's an extremely difficult decision," O'Neill said at a news conference Monday. "If I was still a cop, I'd probably be mad at me... [but] it's my responsibility as police commissioner to look out for the city.”

An emotional O’Neill noted he was a beat cop for 34 years, and said it could easily have been him in Pantaleo's position. He said the officer used justifiable force when Garner resisted, but erred when he kept Garner in the chokehold once the two men tumbled to the ground. The administrative judge found the chokehold contributed to an asthma attack that led to Garner’s death, a consequence that O’Neill said required a consequence.

"It's in my DNA, it's who I am," O'Neill said of his background as a patrol officer himself. "But as police commissioner, I have to think about the city, and I have to think about the rules and [regulations] of the NYPD and make sure people follow them."

"There are absolutely no victors here today," he added, noting that the inevitability of having to make this decision was something he knew he would have to face when he was sworn in as police commissioner in September 2016.

O’Neill’s decision to terminate Pantaleo came as a surprise even to key members of the department’s top brass, who watched the news as it was announced on TV, several police sources told ABC News.

O’Neill kept his own counsel and the decision was his and something he worked through largely alone.

The dismissal means Pantaleo can collect his pension but loses other benefits he would have retained upon retirement.

O'Neill said that he called New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to inform him of the decision before making the public announcement. He noted that he did not inform either Pantaleo or the Garner family of the decision before his announcement.

PHOTO: New York Police  Department Commissioner James P. O'Neill speaks at a news conference at Police Headquarters in New York, Aug. 19, 2019.
New York Police Department Commissioner James P. O'Neill speaks at a news conference at Police Headquarters in New York, Aug. 19, 2019.
Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

De Blasio said Monday afternoon that he believes in the need for a "fair and impartial process, and that's what happened here."

Pantaleo, 35, of Staten Island, was on desk duty while collecting an annual salary of more than $97,000, according to public records. However, he was suspended after the judge's recommendation -- a practice when a civil servant is recommended to be fired, the NYPD said.

In this undated family file photo provided by the National Action Network, Eric Garner, right, poses with his children during a family outing.
Family photo via National Action Network/AP, FILE

Judge Maldonado ruled that Daniel Pantaleo used the prohibited chokehold that caused Eric Garner's death and Daniel Pantaleo must be terminated," said Fred Davie, chairman of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, at their monthly meeting on Aug. 14.

Chokeholds were banned by the NYPD in 1993.

Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, said that the judge's recommendation brought "some relief" after a Staten Island grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo.

Garner's mother Gwen Carr thanked more than 50 people who out to show support at a rally Monday afternoon, sharing a message she had for Pantaleo.

"You may have lost your job, but I lost a son," Carr said. "You cannot replace that. You can get another job -- maybe at Burger King."

"It's been five long years I've fought this fight. I'm not stopping this fight," said Carr, referring to the larger issue of police brutality.

Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader who assisted the Garner family throughout the process, said that "we are relieved but we are not celebratory. There is nothing to celebrate."

"Today Daniel Pantaleo lost his job but five years ago, Eric Garner lost his life," Sharpton said. He added that the decision came "five years too late, and [caused] five years of pain and misery that will never end for this family."

Sharpton said that Pantaleo's termination is "good for the citizens of the city," but promised that "this is the beginning, not the end," as he wants to push for chokeholds to be criminalized under state law so that officers who use the move would face more than "just termination."

The New York City's medical examiner ruled that Garner's death was a homicide due to the sequence of evidence started by Pantaleo's chokehold that triggered a cascade of events and ended with a fatal asthma attack.

O’Neill’s decision elicited a swift rebuke from Patrick Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, who said that the commissioner "has chosen politics and his own self-interest over the police officers he claims to lead."

"He has chosen to cringe in fear of the anti-police extremists, rather than standing up for New Yorkers who want a functioning police department, with cops who are empowered to protect them and their families,” Lynch said in a statement. “With this decision, Commissioner O’Neill has opened the door for politicians to dictate the outcome of every single NYPD disciplinary proceeding, without any regard for the facts of the case or police officers’ due process rights.”

In public remarks after the decision was announced, Lynch said that the mayor and the police commissioner need to be held responsible.

"This mayor needs to be removed. The police commissioner needs to know he's lost his police department," Lynch said.

Davie released a statement after the decision, saying that the Garner family and the public "finally have closure."

"Make no mistake: This process took entirely too long. And the tragic reality is that neither a verdict from a judge nor a decision by a police commissioner can reverse what happened on July 17, 2014," Davie said in the statement.

"Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s termination from the New York City Police Department does not make the death of Eric Garner any less harrowing. But it is heartening to know that some element of justice has been served."

Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, joins others during a news conference outside of Police Headquarters in Manhattan to protest during the police disciplinary hearing for Officer Daniel Pantaleo on May 21, 2019, in New York.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images, FILE

New York Attorney General Letitia James released a statement after O'Neill's announcement.

"While we will never be able to change the events that transpired or bring Mr. Garner back, today, some semblance of justice is finally being served,” she said.

Cell phone video of Garner’s death was seen by millions around the world. His last words, "I can't breathe," became a rallying cry for grassroots organizations like Black Lives Matter, which continues to lead protest against police-involved deaths of unarmed civilians.

Eric Garner, seen in this undated Facebook photo, died while being arrested by police in Staten Island.
via Facebook

Chants of "Fire Pantaleo" interrupted Mayor Bill de Blasio during a Democratic presidential debate in Detroit in July.

Pantaleo's attorney, Stuart London, maintained that his client used a "seat belt" method -- a technique Pantaleo was formally taught -- to subdue Garner for allegedly selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island.

London has said that Garner caused his own death because of his weight and previously diagnosed health conditions.

Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch wanted O'Neill to support Pantaleo and not fire him in order to allow officers "to be effective again."

ABC News' Josh Margolin contributed to this report.

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