Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer who killed Eric Garner in 2014, was fired on Monday. The announcement from Commissioner James P. O’Neill resolves a crucial aspect of the fight over the 34-year-old’s fate, which drew renewed attention last month when New York mayor Bill de Blasio, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, was greeted at a nationally televised debate by protesters chanting, “Fire Pantaleo!”
It’s been a costly process in all respects: The five years since Garner’s death have seen his friend Ramsey Orta, who filmed the killing and distributed the footage, harassed by police and sent to jail in what many saw as retaliation; his daughter, Erica Garner, dead of a heart attack at age 27, having become an outspoken activist for police accountability after her father’s death; and Garner’s family receiving a $5.9 million wrongful-death settlement from the city — the payment of which Ed Mullins, head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, derided as “obscene” and “shameful” in its tacit indulgence of a man who “repeatedly chose to break the law and resist arrest.”
But until now, accountability for the perpetrator remained elusive. Pantaleo was confined to desk duty but faced no other administrative repercussions. He was still being paid upward of $100,000 annually as the police department mulled and stalled on holding disciplinary hearings and William Barr’s Justice Department announced it would not file civil-rights charges against him. Yet even as O’Neill’s decision was widely and preemptively affirmed — including by Judge Rosemarie Maldonado, who wrote after a June departmental trial that Pantaleo had lied about using an illegal chokehold on Garner — it was still a grudging one, at times veering perilously close to blaming the victim. That the commissioner spent a significant portion of Monday’s press conference suggesting that Garner might still be alive had he been in better shape and not protested his arrest conveys that, for him, the person most responsible for the 43-year-old’s violent demise is still a subject of dispute.
“It is unlikely that Mr. Garner thought he was in such poor health that a brief struggle with the police would cause his death,” O’Neill said, alluding to Garner’s weight and asthma. “He should’ve decided against resisting arrest, but a man with family lost his life, and that is an irreversible tragedy.” He added that Pantaleo has suffered as well. “[A] hardworking police officer with a family, a man that took this job to do good, to make a difference in his home community, has now lost his chosen career. And that is a different kind of tragedy.” O’Neill also framed Garner’s death as a cautionary tale — not about the dangers of hair-trigger police, but the perils of questioning their authority: “The street is never the place to argue the appropriateness of an arrest,” he said. “That is what our courts are for.”
Taken together, this framing gives the impression that blame for Garner’s death is shared between him and the man who killed him — as if being choked to death by a police officer was, at its core, a matter of one’s personal health or physical fitness. “Every time I watch that video, I say to myself, as probably all of you do, to Mr. Garner, ‘Don’t do it. Comply,’” said O’Neill. “To Officer Pantaleo: ‘Don’t do it.’” The reality is that no police officer had to approach Garner that July day in 2014, or to try arresting him for selling loose cigarettes, which he was not actually doing. And nothing about the situation required Pantaleo to wrap his forearm around Garner’s neck and clasp hands, choking him to the ground even as he waved his arms and gasped, “I can’t breathe,” 11 consecutive times.
That the precise chokehold Pantaleo used was banned by the department years ago is almost incidental, but renders the delay with which he was disciplined that much harder to excuse. Still, the narrative persists that Garner played a leading role in his own death, as articulated most bluntly by Pantaleo’s lawyers during the June departmental hearings. “[Garner] died from being morbidly obese,” Stuart London, the police union attorney leading the defense team, claimed in his opening statement, according to the Washington Post. “He was a ticking time bomb that resisted arrest. If he was put in a bear hug, it would have been the same outcome.”
There’s no evidence to suggest that this is true, and yet it’s not a surprising claim: The same ethos informs rationales for police killings of black men and boys in plenty of other cases. Whether it’s being too overweight, too asthmatic, or in cases like those of Mike Brown and Terrence Crutcher, respectively, too “demon”-like or “bad”-looking, the go-to narrative is that these victims are primarily responsible for their own deaths, a claim that serves the added function of relieving police of total culpability. This is part of the process by which officers are regularly exonerated for wrongdoing. According to CNN, citing data compiled by Bowling Green University criminal-justice professor Philip Stinson, who tracks police misconduct convictions, just 80 officers nationwide were charged with murder or manslaughter for killing someone while on duty between 2005 and 2017, and only 35 percent of those were convicted.
Pantaleo has thus far avoided criminal indictment locally, a civil-rights case federally, and still may face no criminal charges at all — a record of evasion unblemished until his firing today, and aided further by the narrative that Garner played a major role in his own killing. That O’Neill trafficked in this delusion at Monday’s press conference is not just irresponsible. It demonstrates how Garner’s death (and its fallout) was not the product of individual misconduct alone, but of a system designed to protect that individual even in the course of rebuking him.