The New York police officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold during an attempted arrest in 2014, fueling the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, will not face federal criminal charges, the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn said on Tuesday.
Garner's death on a sidewalk during an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, and his gasped final words "I can't breathe" caught on bystander video, played a key role in the rise of the movement decrying excessive use of force by police officers against black men and teens in the United States.
Garner's family immediately blasted the decision clearing Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Garner in a prohibited chokehold, in a news conference as a betrayal.
U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue confirmed the decision at a news conference in New York's Brooklyn borough on Tuesday.
"The death of Eric Garner was a tragedy," Donoghue said. "And I know that every one of my colleagues who reviewed the video shared the same sentiment. The job of the federal prosecutor, however, is not to let our emotions dictate our decisions."
A lengthy Department of Justice review of the incident did not reach a conclusive determination as to whether Pantaleo willfully committed misconduct, an "essential element" necessary to bring federal charges, a senior department official told reporters at a briefing in Washington.
U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr made the ultimate call not to bring charges, siding with federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, who had not wanted to charge Pantaleo, over the department's civil rights division, which had wanted to bring charges, the official said.
The official confirmed that no New York police officer – not just Pantaleo – will face any charges.
MOTHER: 'TODAY WE CAN'T BREATHE'
After meeting with federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, members of Garner's family held a news conference with civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton, who decried the decision as "a moral disgrace and judicial malpractice."
"The DOJ has failed us," said Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, adding that she wanted to see Pantaleo fired.
"Five years ago, my son said 'I can't breathe' 11 times, and today we can't breathe because they let us down."
Wednesday will mark five years since the incident. A New York grand jury in 2014 declined to charge Pantaleo, who has been assigned to desk duty since Garner's death and faced a disciplinary trial in May at New York City Police Department headquarters.
A departmental judge is due to make her recommendations to New York Police Commissioner James O'Neill, who will then ultimately decide whether to punish Pantaleo. He could lose vacation days or be fired.
The NYPD said its disciplinary process on Pantaleo will not be affected by federal prosecutors' decision not to bring criminal charges.
UNION: NO 'SCAPEGOATING'
New York's Police Benevolent Association union welcomed the news.
"Although Mr. Garner's death was an undeniable tragedy, Police Officer Pantaleo did not cause it," PBA President Patrick Lynch said in a statement. "Scapegoating a good and honorable officer, who was doing his job in the manner he was taught, will not heal the wounds this case has caused for our entire city."
The New York City Chief Medical Examiner's office ruled that Garner's death was a homicide induced by "compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police."
Pantaleo's lawyers have argued he did not use a chokehold, but instead used an authorized "seatbelt" hold that slipped as Garner struggled, and that the officer did not cause Garner's death.
In 2015, New York City officials agreed to pay Garner's family an out-of-court settlement of $5.9 million to resolve a wrongful death lawsuit.
The incident, and other high-profile police killings of black men and teens in cities including Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, set off a wave of nationwide protests in 2014 and 2015.
Several Democratic contenders for the White House, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, condemned the decisions.
"Years ago, we put our faith in the federal government to act," de Blasio said in a statement. "We won't make that mistake again."
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California, a former prosecutor, wrote on Twitter, "This is a miscarriage of justice. ... My heart breaks for the Garner family."
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