The decision of a Staten Island grand jury on Wednesday, December 3 not to indict 29-year-old NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner has unleashed a flurry of activity, both with respect to the Garner case as well as to set in place a process when unarmed civilians are killed by law enforcement officers.
Pantaleo allegedly used a chokehold on the victim, who did not have a weapon, while trying to arrest Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes on July 17, 2013. Garner, who was videotaped repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe,” died as a result of neck compression.
On Monday, December 8, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in a letter urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to take executive action directing the office of the attorney general to investigate, and prosecute if warranted, such cases, going forward.
“The horrible events surrounding the death of Eric Garner have revealed a deep crisis of confidence in some of the fundamental elements of our criminal justice system,” said Schneiderman. “Nothing could be more critical for both the public and the police officers who work tirelessly to keep our communities safe than acting immediately to restore trust and confidence in the independence of reviews in any case involving an unarmed civilian killed by a law enforcement officer. While several worthy legislative reforms have been proposed, the governor has the power to act today to solve this problem. I strongly encourage him to take action now.”
Borough President Eric Adams, a former police captain, was supportive, noting, “I am pleased that Attorney General Schneiderman is advancing the call for his office to be appointed to the investigations of incidences involving the deaths of unarmed individuals that are related to police activity.”
However, not everyone is on board with the proposal. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson believes Schneiderman’s plan undermines Brooklynites.
“Acts of police brutality are not only crimes against the individual victim but also are attacks on the communities in which they occur,” he said. “Therefore, local prosecutors who are elected to enforce the laws in those communities should not be robbed of their ability to faithfully and fairly do so in cases where police officers shoot, kill or injure someone unjustly.
“The people of Brooklyn have voted for their district attorney to keep them safe from all crimes, including those of police brutality,” Thompson continued. “The attorney general’s proposal would override their choice, and that should not happen.”
Cuomo’s communications director Melissa DeRosa said the attorney general’s proposal was being reviewed.
In addition, members of the Senate Democratic Conference are poised to introduce legislation on the state level that would create an Office of Special Investigation that would be charged with reviewing the actions of police officers that result in the death of an unarmed civilian.
Such a law would be “intended to address the grave concerns many New Yorkers feel regarding the criminal justice system and the perception that the system does not treat all New Yorkers equally,” explained State Senator-elect Jesse Hamilton. “Implementing these common sense proposals will help heal the deep divisions in New York State and return the public’s trust in their law enforcement institutions.”
Short-term, both the Federal Department of Justice and the NYPD will be reviewing the case, the former with respect to possible civil rights violations and the latter with respect to the agency’s procedures.