National News

Police Department Gives Federal Investigators Ultimatum in Eric Garner Case

Posted July 16, 2018 9:20 p.m. EDT
Updated July 16, 2018 9:40 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The New York Police Department, impatient at the slow pace of the federal government’s civil rights investigation into the death of Eric Garner in July 2014, told the Justice Department on Monday that it would soon start disciplinary proceedings against the officers involved in the killing in the absence of federal action.

The Police Department, acting one day before the fourth anniversary of Garner’s death on Staten Island, said it would no longer hold off on disciplinary proceedings if the Justice Department had not announced by Aug. 31 whether it will file criminal charges.

“Understandably, members of the public in general and the Garner family in particular have grown impatient with the fact that NYPD has not proceeded with our disciplinary proceedings and they have difficulty comprehending a decision to defer to a federal criminal investigation that seems to have no end in sight,” Lawrence Byrne, the department’s deputy commissioner for legal matters, said in a letter to the Justice Department on Monday.

Byrne added that “given the extraordinary passage of time since the incident without a final decision” on the federal investigation, “any further delay in moving ahead with our own disciplinary proceedings can no longer be justified.”

The disciplinary proceedings would involve Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was seen on a bystander’s video holding Garner’s neck as he begged for breath, as well as a sergeant, Kizzy Adonis, who was one of the first supervisors at the scene. Adonis has already been administratively charged with failing to properly oversee her officers, according to a senior police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel matter. The disciplinary proceedings against her, however, have paused, pending the federal investigation.

A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on criminal charges.

Critics have challenged the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to explain how, after so long, the officer seen on video applying a chokehold to Garner, who was 43, still had not faced discipline.

“No one is dragging their feet,” de Blasio said on July 17, 2016, in response to a question about the process, which, even then, seemed delayed.

The mayor said then, as he has said frequently since, that the Police Department would move forward with its internal disciplinary process after the federal investigation had been completed. Now, the de Blasio administration, in its letter, said it would no longer wait.

The Justice Department said in a statement that the letter “does not have any bearing on the decision-making timeline” of prosecutors. The statement also said prosecutors informed Byrne “this spring” that the Police Department could move forward with disciplinary proceedings.

Phil Walzak, the Police Department’s top spokesman, disputed that account. “DOJ did not provide a green light this spring,” he wrote in an email.

The department filed internal charges against Adonis in January 2016. Officials said at the time that they had to begin the process because of an 18-month statute of limitations under the state’s Civil Service Law.

The same time constraint did not apply to Pantaleo because of an exception made in cases where there is an ongoing criminal investigation, officials said; the Police Department’s inquiry into Pantaleo was completed more than two years ago.

If the Justice Department takes no action, an internal trial at the Police Department would begin, overseen by a deputy police commissioner. The Civilian Complaint Review Board, an outside oversight agency that looks into police wrongdoing, found last year that Pantaleo used a prohibited chokehold and recommended departmental charges that could lead to suspension or dismissal. A lawyer from the complaint board would act as a prosecutor in the departmental trial, officials from the board and the Police Department said.

“When this police hearing goes forward, Daniel Pantaleo is not the only one on trial,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, standing with Garner’s mother at a news conference in Harlem on Monday. “The chokehold policy of the NYPD is on trial.”

Adonis would be prosecuted by a police department lawyer. The complaint board does not have jurisdiction over the kind of managerial mistakes she is accused of committing.

If found guilty of misconduct at a departmental trial — a process that would likely stretch into next year — Pantaleo and Adonis could face a range of penalties, including mandatory retraining, lost vacation time to outright dismissal. The police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, has the final say over their fates.

Defense attorneys for both officers declined to comment. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association said in a statement that Pantaleo “is entitled to due process and an impartial consideration of the facts” and would eventually be “vindicated.”

The city paid $5.9 million to settle a civil suit over Garner’s death in 2015.

Esaw Snipes, Garner’s widow, said she hoped the Police Department’s actions would bring an end to what has been an “emotionally draining” experience that included the death last year of her daughter, Erica Garner, who had actively protested her father’s death.

“I’m kind of like skeptical about everything now,” Snipes, 50, said. “If something happens, then great. But I’ve kind of like given up hope. It’s been so long. It’s been four years.”