By Pete Williams, Minyvonne Burke and Adam Reiss
A New York City police officer will not face federal charges in the death of Eric Garner, the unarmed black man heard in a video repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” after he was put in an apparent chokehold, according to a person familiar with the case.
The Justice Department on Tuesday concluded its five-year investigation and will not bring civil rights or criminal charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was seen in the video with his arm around Garner’s neck.
According to a senior Justice Department official, Attorney General William Barr made the final decision not to charge Pantaleo, choosing to follow the recommendations of Brooklyn prosecutors.
However, attorneys in the Civil Rights Division thought charges could have been filed, according to two DOJ officials.
The decision not to pursue charges comes one day before the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death, which was also the deadline for charges to be filed.
Garner, 43, who was asthmatic, was being arrested for allegedly selling untaxed, loose cigarettes. His death on July 17, 2014, sparked national outrage and protests. The phrase “I can’t breathe” — which he said 11 times during his arrest — became a rallying cry for police reform.
A medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, saying the chokeholdwas the cause. Chokeholds are prohibited by the New York Police Department. Pantaleo has said that he performed a legal move called the “seatbelt” on Garner.
A grand jury on Staten Island declined to indict Pantaleo in Garner’s death, but the officer was the subject of a departmental trial earlier this year. An administrative judge has not yet submitted her findings to Police Commissioner James O’Neill, who ultimately decides if Pantaleo will keep his job.
“Everyone agrees the incident should not have ended with Garner’s death,” the senior Justice Department official told NBC News, adding that the law requires proof that Pantaleo acted “willfully” during his arrest of Garner.
“We prosecute people for what they do on purpose. We would have to prove that in that struggle, a dynamic situation, that the officer decided he was then going to apply that hold, that it was wasn’t just a mistake,” the official said.
Garner’s daughter, Emerald, said she was “very angry” over the decision and called on Pantaleo to be fired.
“Five years later, and there’s still no justice,” she said at a news conference after the decision was announced. “Don’t apologize to me, fire the officer.”
Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, said the Justice Department “has failed us.”
“My son said ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times and today we can’t breathe because they have let us down,” she said. “We’re asking the commissioner to make the right decision. Officer Pantaleo and all the officers involved in my son’s death that day need to be off the force.”