NEW YORK — Elected officials, civil rights activists and family members expressed dismay Tuesday that the Justice Department had declined to pursue charges against a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk five years ago.
In an emotional news conference, family members called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and police officials to immediately fire the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who remains on the force, suspended with pay.
“The DOJ has failed us,” Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said. “Five years ago, my son said ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. Today we can’t breathe. Because they have let us down.”
She also posted on Twitter the phrase “This is not the end,” repeated 11 times.
The decision by the Justice Department ended a yearslong inquiry into a case that prompted national protests over excessive force by police and helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.
Caught on video, Garner’s death shocked the nation. It showed Pantaleo and a team of other officers taking down and arresting Garner, accusing him of selling cigarettes illegally, on July 17, 2014.
Federal prosecutors faced a Wednesday deadline to file some of the charges against Pantaleo, who put his arm around Garner’s neck while arresting him. Garner did not appear to be resisting, and the officers continued to hold him even after he said repeatedly that he could not breathe.
The New York City medical examiner determined that Garner died of a fatal asthma attack sparked by the police takedown and compression to his neck and chest.
De Blasio said in a statement that the Justice Department had failed the city.
“Years ago, we put our faith in the federal government to act,” he said. “We won’t make that mistake again.
“New York is not the same city it was five years ago,” the mayor added. “We are a different city, and we must act like a different city. Moving forward, we will not wait for the federal government to commence our own disciplinary proceedings.”
The U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Richard P. Donoghue, said Tuesday that federal investigators had determined that Pantaleo held Garner in a chokehold for seven seconds but that Garner did not say he could not breathe until after the hold was released.
Garner, he said, had resisted arrest, and officers were permitted to use some force to arrest him. Ultimately, he said, the government concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Pantaleo willfully used unreasonable force, the standard required for a federal charge.
“At the end of the day, Attorney General Barr thoroughly considered this case and made a decision himself and that is the decision today,” Donoghue said.
The decision dashed the hopes of the family and their supporters that Pantaleo might face prosecution in a case that ignited demonstrations and debates and led to changes in policing practices across the United States.
Tina Luongo, the attorney in charge of the criminal defense practice at The Legal Aid Society, said the long wait for the Justice Department’s decision had unnecessarily prolonged the Garner family’s anguish.
“All eyes now fall to City Hall,” she said, “where Mayor Bill de Blasio can finally deliver some measure of justice to the Garner family.”
In June, the New York Police Department finished a disciplinary trial to determine if Pantaleo should be fired or punished in some other way for using what appeared to be a chokehold, which the department had banned more than two decades ago.
Though de Blasio can weigh in, it is ultimately up to Commissioner James P. O’Neill, as the final arbiter of police discipline, to decide whether to fire Pantaleo.
Police officials said he was waiting for the report of the administrative judge before he would make his decision.
“The NYPD internal department disciplinary case against Police Officer Pantaleo is proceeding and a determination has NOT yet been made,” the department posted on Twitter on Tuesday. “Today’s announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice does not affect this process.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton stood with Garner’s family on the steps outside the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn to convey their anger over the Justice Department’s decision. He said that the federal lawyers who met with him and the family of Garner on Tuesday to inform them of the decision had given them no legal reason, just the attorney general’s sympathy.
“Lady Justice has been choked like Eric Garner,” he said.
Jonathan Moore, a lawyer who represents the Garner family, said they intended to continue to pursue the case again after President Donald Trump was no longer in the White House. For civil rights violations that result in death, he said, there is no statute of limitations.
“This case is not over, and the next president and the next attorney general will be presented with the same facts,” Moore said. “And we hope that they do the right thing, because we will not rest until there is justice.”
In the Staten Island neighborhood where Garner was killed, the streets were quiet Tuesday afternoon. But Anthony Hardy, 65, who was in the area when the incident occurred five years ago, said that if that there was no action taken against Pantaleo, the neighborhood would “roar.”
“I’m angry,” he said. “He deserves punishment. Nobody is above the law.”