New York Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill on Monday fired the white officer who used a lethal chokehold on unarmed Eric Garner five years ago, an incident that drew national attention amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The termination of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, which prohibits him from collecting a pension, sparked outrage from the city’s police union, which said the decision could cost the commissioner support among the New York Police Department’s rank and file.
“With this decision, Commissioner O’Neill has opened the door for politicians to dictate the outcome of every single NYPD disciplinary proceeding,” the New York Police Benevolent Association said in a written statement. “He will wake up tomorrow to discover that the cop-haters are still not satisfied, but it will be too late. The damage is already done.
“Now it is time for every [officer] in this city to make their own choice,” said the association, which represents about 24,000 sworn officers in the city.
During a press conference, Commissioner O’Neill acknowledged that his decision would draw anger from those he had served alongside for decades as a street cop.
“If I was still a police officer, I would probably not be happy,” he said.
But he brushed aside suggestions that he was under political pressure to fire Mr. Pantaleo, whom a state grand jury in December decided not to indict on any charges related to the incident and who Attorney General William Barr last month said would not face any federal charges.
“This is my decision. There are a couple possible outcomes, but this is a decision the police commissioner makes,” Commissioner O’Neill said.
Garner’s death, which was captured on cellphone video as he repeatedly told officers “I can’t breathe,” sparked mass protests and fueled a national debate about police conduct toward minorities. As Mr. Pantaleo applied a hold on Garner’s neck, other officers helped wrestle the 43-year-old, more than 300-pound man to the ground.
The police commissioner said Monday that Mr. Pantaleo knew chokeholds were against department policy when he arrested Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes. Commissioner O’Neill said the tactics he used were reckless.
“The unintended consequences of Eric Garner’s death must have consequences of its own,” the commissioner said. “It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.”
Commissioner O’Neill said the officer was making a proper arrest until he had Garner on the ground and a forearm against his throat. The commissioner heaped some of the blame on Garner by saying he was wrong to resist arrest.
“Every time I watch that video, I say to myself … to Mr. Garner, ‘Don’t do it. Comply. Officer Pantaleo, don’t do it,’” he said.
Mr. Pantaleo’s attorney, Stuart London, said his client intends to sue the NYPD to get his job back and reclaim his pension. Mr. London described Mr. Pantaleo as “disappointed, upset but has a lot of strength and wants to go forward.”
The attorney said they will fight the termination under Article 78, a New York civil code that enables people to challenge decisions by government agencies in court.
An officer with the NYPD since 2006, Mr. Pantaleo was suspended this month after a department deputy commissioner recommended his termination.
Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado found Mr. Pantaleo guilty of misconduct for recklessly applying a chokehold, but she acquitted him of allegations that he intentionally strangled Garner.
It was widely expected that Commissioner O’Neill would follow her recommendation.
The long-awaited decision marks a turning point in the case, which began in July 2014 when the officer arrested Garner on Staten Island for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Although Mr. Pantaleo was cleared by a Staten Island grand jury and the Justice Department, he had been working a desk job without his badge or gun since the incident.
One of Garner’s daughters, Emerald Snipes Garner, thanked Commissioner O’Neill for his decision during a press conference at the headquarters of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
“I truly, sincerely thank you for firing the officer, regardless to however you came up to your decision,” she said. “You finally made the decision that should’ve been made by five years ago.”
She vowed to continue her crusade against other officers involved in her father’s death.
“I don’t want another Eric Garner,” she said. “I will do everything in my power to never see another Eric Garner.”
The New York Civil Liberties Union bemoaned the length of time it took for Mr. Pantaleo’s removal.
“It may be tempting to call this justice, but it’s not. We cannot lower our standards just because the NYPD has kept the bar so low,” the group said in a statement.
Several high-ranking politicians including state Attorney General Letitia James, praised Commissioner O’Neill’s decision.
“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,” Ms. James said.
She said more work needs to be done “to fix our broken criminal justice system.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, pledged to hold hearings on police-community relations.
“The officer in the case used an illegal chokehold on Garner that was banned by the NYPD,” Mr. Nadler said in a statement. “Firing him was the right thing to do but should not have taken so many years for such a limited measure of justice.”