US prosecutors say insufficient evidence to charge cop linked to black man's chokehold death

World | 17 Jul 2019 1:30 pm

After years of silence, federal prosecutors said Tuesday that they will not bring criminal charges against a white New York City policeman in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man whose dying words — “I can’t breathe” — became a national rallying cry against police brutality.

The decision to end a years long civil rights investigation without charges was made by Attorney General William Barr and was announced the day before the five-year anniversary of the deadly Staten Island encounter, just as the statute of limitations was set to expire.

Civil rights prosecutors in Washington had favored filing criminal charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, but ultimately Barr sided with other federal prosecutors based in Brooklyn who said evidence, including a bystander’s widely viewed cellphone video, wasn’t sufficient to make a case, a Justice Department official told The Associated Press.

Richard Donoghue, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, said at a news conference that while Garner’s death was tragic, there was insufficient evidence to prove that Pantaleo or any other officers involved in the confrontation on a Staten Island sidewalk had willfully violated his civil rights.

“Even if we could prove that Officer Pantaleo’s hold of Mr. Garner constituted unreasonable force, we would still have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Pantaleo acted willfully in violation of the law,” Donoghue said.

Prosecutors in Brooklyn repeatedly watched video of the confrontation between Garner and police, Donoghue said, but were not convinced Pantaleo willfully violated the law in using a chokehold, which is banned under police department policy.

Pantaleo initially tried to use two approved restraint tactics on Garner, much larger at 6-foot-2 and about 400 pounds, but ended up wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck “in what was, in effect, a chokehold” for about seven seconds as they struggled against a glass storefront window and fell to the sidewalk, Donoghue said.

“Significantly, Officer Pantaleo was not engaged in a chokehold on Mr. Garner when he said he could not breathe, and neither Officer Pantaleo nor any other officer applied a chokehold to Mr. Garner after he first said he could not breathe,” Donoghue said.

Garner could be heard on bystander video crying out “I can’t breathe” at least 11 times before he fell unconscious. The medical examiner’s office said a chokehold contributed to Garner’s death.

The federal inquiry resulted in two sets of recommendations.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn recommended no charges, while civil rights prosecutors in Washington recommended charging the officer. Barr, who watched the video himself and got several briefings, made the ultimate decision, a senior Justice Department official said.

Donoghue announced the decision not to charge Pantaleo after meeting with Garner’s family, but the news was reported in the media beforehand, angering advocates.

At the news conference, Donoghue said he expressed his and Barr’s condolences. He said Garner’s death was a tragedy and that “for anyone to die under circumstances like these is a tremendous loss.” He also apologized for the length of the investigation, calling the delay “entirely inappropriate and unacceptable.”

In the years since Garner’s death, the NYPD has made a series of sweeping changes on how it relates to the communities it serves, ditching a policy of putting rookie officers in higher-crime precincts in favor of a neighborhood policing model that revolves around community officers tasked with getting to know New Yorkers.

De Blasio, who is touting his leadership on police-community relations on the presidential campaign trail, said the city is not the same as it was five years ago.

“Reforms over the last five years have improved relations between our police and our communities,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that crime was at record lows and 150,000 fewer people were arrested last year than the year before he took office.

But some activists, including Garner’s family and relatives of others killed by police, have argued the changes aren’t enough.

De Blasio also said that it was a mistake for the city to wait for federal prosecutors to finish investigating Garner’s death before the police department began disciplinary proceedings. But there is no rule requiring the NYPD to do so.

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