The New York City Police Department’s highest-ranking judge on Friday recommended terminating Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who strangled to death Eric Garner, a senior law-enforcement official said.
Pantaleo, who has been on desk duty since the incident, was immediately suspended without pay by the NYPD, a spokesperson said, adding that it is standard practice when a department judge recommends that an officer be fired from the force.
The non-binding verdict brings to an end the long-delayed disciplinary trial for the 33-year-old officer, who faced internal charges brought by the Civilian Complaint Review Board of use of a banned chokehold and intentional restriction of breathing.
Pantaleo’s fate is now in the hands of NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, who will decide whether the officer should be terminated for his actions. Both sides have two weeks to submit responses to NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado’s recommendation before O’Neill makes a final decision.
Rev. Al Sharpton spoke after the recommendation next to members of Garner’s family and called on O’Neill to act swiftly.
“The commissioner needs to immediately, unequivocally accept the recommendation of the judge and do it right away. It is good for the city, not for the Garner family,” he said. “But make no mistake about it, this is not justice for the Garner family, because justice for the Garner family would have been a federal proceeding or a criminal proceeding in the local courts.”
The 2014 death of Garner, a black man, sparked national protests and fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as five years’ of accusations from his family that justice has been denied.
His death has also haunted NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who most recently took heat for it at the Democratic primary debate on Wednesday night, where protesters twice disrupted the presidential hopefuls, shouting “Fire Pantaleo!” inside a packed theater in Detroit.
When later asked by a CNN moderator why Pantaleo was still on the police force, de Blasio insisted the Garner family was “going to get justice.”
Last month, the Justice Department announced it declined to charge Pantaleo with violating Garner’s civil rights. In December 2014, a Staten Island grand jury also declined to indict the officer, who has been on paid “restricted duty” for five years.
At his disciplinary trial, CCRB prosecutors argued that Pantaleo intentionally used a banned chokehold on Garner on July 17, 2014, after stopping him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island.
“Eric Garner didn’t swing or hit any of these officers. There were three other officers there that didn’t use a chokehold,” prosecutor Jonathan Fogel said in May.
In a video of the incident that instantly went viral, Garner, 44, can be heard telling officers “I can’t breathe” over 11 times, eventually losing consciousness while on the ground. His last words became a rallying cry for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement and ignited protests across New York City and the nation.
Pantaleo’s defense team has argued that Garner’s death stemmed from his existing health issues, including obesity and asthma, despite the medical examiner’s finding that Garner’s death was homicide, set in motion by Pantaleo’s chokehold. The officer did not testify during the internal trial on his own behalf.