NEW YORK (AP) — After five years of investigations and protests, the New York City Police Department on Monday fired an officer involved in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, the black man whose dying gasps of “I can’t breathe” gave voice to a national debate over race and police use of force.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill said he fired Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, based on a recent recommendation of a department disciplinary judge.
O’Neill said he thought Pantaleo’s use of the banned chokehold as he wrestled with Garner was a mistake that could have been made by any officer in the heat of an arrest. But it was clear Pantaleo had broken department rules and “can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.”
“None of us can take back our decisions,” O’Neill said, “especially when they lead to the death of another human being.”
The decision was welcomed by activists and Garner’s family, but condemned by the head of the city’s largest police union, who declared that it would undermine morale and cause officers to hesitate to use force for fear they could be fired.
“The job is dead!” Patrolman’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said at a news conference, standing in front of a police department flag hung upside down.
His voice cracking with anger, Lynch called Pantaleo an “exemplary” officer and called for union members to participate in a no-confidence vote on the mayor and commissioner.
“It’s absolutely essential that the world know that the New York City Police Department is rudderless and frozen,” he said. “The leadership has abandoned ship and left our police officers on the street alone, without backing.”
Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, said he would use legal appeals to try to get the officer reinstated. He has insisted the officer used a reasonable amount of force and did not mean to hurt Garner.
Mayor Bill De Blasio, speaking at City Hall, said he hoped the decision would let the city, the department and Garner’s family move forward.
“Today, we are finally seeing justice done,” the Democrat said. “Today will not bring Eric Garner back, but I hope it brings some small measure of closure to the Garner family.”
Garner’s death came at a time of a growing public outcry over police killings of unarmed black men, which sparked the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Video of the confrontation between Garner and the officers trying to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes drew outrage and was viewed millions of times online.
The footage showed Garner, 43, and Pantaleo lurching against a glass storefront window and then falling to the pavement. Quickly, Garner, who weighed about 400 pounds (180 kilograms), appeared distressed gasping, “I can’t breathe,” at least 11 times before he fell unconscious.
Weeks later, protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Throughout the fall of 2014, demonstrators chanted “I can’t breathe” as they marched against police brutality in multiple U.S. cities.
When a state grand jury on Staten Island declined to indict Pantaelo in December of that year, protesters poured into the streets by the thousands, venting frustration that criminal charges against officers using deadly force remained rare, even with video evidence.
Then, a few days before Christmas, a man upset about the Garner and Brown cases fatally shot two New York City police officers as they sat in their cruiser in Brooklyn.
Those killings, in turn, gave fire to the Blue Lives Matter counter-movement, with police union officials arguing that the heated rhetoric against officers was making them unsafe. Some officers began turning their backs on de Blasio at funerals.
Federal authorities kept a civil rights investigation open for five years before announcing last month they would not bring charges.
City officials had long insisted that they could not take action until criminal investigations were complete.
In announcing his decision, O’Neill said Pantaleo’s initial use of a chokehold as the two men grappled was forgivable, given the struggle. But he said the officer should have relaxed his grip once Garner was on the ground.
“Had I been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation, I may have made similar mistakes,” O’Neill said. “And had I made those mistakes, I would have wished I had used the arrival of backup officers to give the situation more time to make the arrest.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton said Garner’s family was “relieved but not celebratory.”
“Pantaleo will go home a terminated man, but this family had to go to a funeral,” Sharpton said at a news conference.
Garner’s daughter, Emerald Snipes Garner, thanked O’Neill “for doing the right thing.” She said she is urging lawmakers to make it a crime for any police officer to use a chokehold.
“I should not be here standing with my brother, fatherless,” she said.
De Blasio had never said whether he believed Pantaleo should lose his job but promised “justice” to the slain man’s family, leading union officials to say the disciplinary process appeared rigged.
Asked whether the mayor forced his hand, O’Neill said the dismissal was his choice. He called Garner’s death an “irreversible tragedy” that “must have a consequence.”
Questions about the handling of the case have dogged de Blasio during his longshot run for president, with some protesters at the recent debate in Detroit chanting, “Fire Pantaleo.”
Asked whether he was worried the police union might start encouraging officers to drag their feet when making arrests, De Blasio said he was certain officers would “do their job.”
Lynch, however, called on officers to “proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality.”
Officers “will uphold our oath,” he said, “but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardizing our careers or personal safety.”
Associated Press Writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.