NEW YORK – In a conference room on Manhattan’s West Side, police investigators and the white officer accused of putting an unarmed black man in a fatal chokehold sat down for the first time to go frame by frame through the amateur video of an arrest gone wrong.
The closed-door viewing this week marked the start of the New York Police Department’s internal affairs probe to determine whether Officer Daniel Pantaleo and at least six other officers will be disciplined for their roles in Eric Garner’s July 17 arrest and death on Staten Island.
The internal inquiry was on hold pending the outcome of a grand jury investigation into whether Pantaleo should face criminal charges. Two days after the grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, police investigators started their work. Except for Pantaleo, any officer who testified in the grand jury was given immunity from criminal prosecution.
The police investigation could result in departmental charges such as excessive force or abuse of authority. Such charges could bring public trials, and if the officers are found guilty, they face a range of potential penalties – from reprimands and loss of vacation days to forced retirement or dismissal.
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Police Commissioner William Bratton has said the NYPD investigation could be concluded within a few months – well ahead of any decision by federal prosecutors on whether to bring a civil rights case. And he has made clear he has the last word on any officer discipline.
Supporters of Garner’s family and others have questioned whether due process – both for the family and the officers – is possible in a case that’s sparked nationwide protests on excessive force and accusations by NYPD officers and union officials that Pantaleo is being railroaded.
“Any examination of this that leads to the officer being disciplined and hopefully losing his job would be a good outcome for the family,” said Garner family attorney Jonathan Moore. “But we don’t hold much faith in the police department investigating their own.”
The video shot by a bystander shows Pantaleo and his partner, Justin D'Amico, in plain clothes trying to arrest Garner on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes. After the 350-pound Garner refuses to be handcuffed, Pantaleo wraps his arm around Garner’s neck and starts to pull him down as others pile on and force him to the ground.
At least six other officers appear on tape amid the ruckus, including Sgt. Dhanan Saminath, the supervising officer. Also shown are another sergeant, two patrolmen in uniform and two other officers. At least one officer is black. Some play active roles in the takedown, others direct foot traffic and stand by.
Garner can be heard repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe,” before he goes limp. The medical examiner later found that a chokehold – along with Garner’s poor health – resulted in his death.
The police patrol guide explicitly bars officers from putting “any pressure on the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” It further warns officers that they are required to “intervene if the use of force against a subject clearly becomes excessive. Failure to do so may result in both criminal and civil liability.”
Pantaleo has told the grand jury and internal affairs investigators that he used a takedown maneuver called a “seat belt” taught at the police academy – not a chokehold – to try to subdue Garner because he was resisting arrest, his lawyer said. He also denied intending to harm Garner and said he believed Garner was breathing because he could still speak.
The attorney, Stuart London, said the internal affairs questions for his client were “straight down the middle.” The investigators went through the video, frame by frame, while asking Pantaleo to explain his actions, London said. The interview lasted about two hours.
There was no response to a phone message left for D'Amico’s attorney. Sergeant’s Benevolent Association head Ed Mullins has said the sergeants did nothing wrong.
A second tape showed at least four EMTs from Richmond University Medical Center arriving on the scene. One checks the pulse of the motionless, unresponsive Garner, who is handcuffed and on his side, but they take no immediate steps to treat him. They are heard commenting that he was breathing and urging him to get into a stretcher on his own power. When Garner doesn’t respond, he’s turned on his back and heaved onto a stretcher by an EMT and officers.
Garner was pronounced dead at a hospital about an hour later.
The day after Garner’s death, Bratton said that “this would appear to have been a chokehold,” which is outlawed by the NYPD. Since then, he’s been more taciturn, saying in an interview on CBS' “Face the Nation,” “I’m not free to comment at all on anything I observed, or my feelings.”
For police officers, the results of the NYPD’s internal process often are “a foregone conclusion, depending on the signals people get from the police commissioner,” said Norman Siegel, a prominent civil rights attorney.
“In the end, there’s a lot of people who want this cop fired,” he said of Pantaleo. “I don’t know whether that’s justice or vengeance.”