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NYPD Officer, Who Used Banned Chokehold On Eric Garner, Is Fired

NOEL KING, HOST:

The New York Police Department, yesterday, fired Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold. That chokehold triggered an asthma attack, which ultimately killed Garner. Garner had resisted arrest for allegedly selling single untaxed cigarettes. Police Commissioner James O'Neill announced the firing yesterday, and he said he has sympathy for both the Garner family and also Pantaleo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES O'NEILL: A man with a family lost his life, and that is an irreversible tragedy. And a hardworking police officer with a family, a man who took this job to do good, to make a difference in his home community has now lost his chosen career, and that is a different kind of tragedy.

KING: All right. In just a minute, we'll talk to Paul Butler. He's a legal scholar, and we're going to ask him whether this is justice for Eric Garner's family. But first, Cindy Rodriguez is a reporter at member station WNYC. She's joining us on Skype. Good morning, Cindy.

CINDY RODRIGUEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: I know you've been following this story carefully and closely. Has Daniel Pantaleo said anything since he was fired?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, Noel, only through his lawyer, Stuart London, who said that his client was disappointed but remains strong. And he also said that Officer Pantaleo plans to sue the city to get his job back. London argued that the firing was blatantly political, and he called the decision arbitrary and capricious.

KING: Do we have any idea about whether a lawsuit could win Pantaleo his job back?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, it's hard to tell at this point. But what we do know is that the union has been very aggressively backing Officer Pantaleo, who, at the time of Garner's death, had eight years on the force. They accused the mayor of influencing the police commissioner's decision, and I'm sure they'll continue to keep pushing that message.

On the other hand, the mayor says the process was fair, and a judge made an objective decision that was based on the facts that were brought out during the officer's disciplinary trial. And you know, Officer Pantaleo was fired because he used an illegal chokehold. And as we know, there is a video that showed what happened, and there's also an autopsy report that shows deep bruising and hemorrhaging around Mr. Garner's neck.

KING: You mentioned Mayor Bill de Blasio. Ultimately, this, of course, was not his decision. He is running for president. How do people in New York City think he handled this situation?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, that's right; the mayor is running for president. And protesters, you know - you might remember - followed him to Detroit, for instance, and screamed fire Pantaleo during the debates. They and the Garner family feel like it took way too long for the city to act. They were very frustrated by the process. The mayor said he had to wait for criminal investigations to play out. And then there are the supporters of the police, who feel like police are put in very difficult situations and then get punished for their actions.

KING: Cindy Rodriguez, a reporter at member station WNYC in New York. I want to bring in Paul Butler, who's a law professor at Georgetown University and author of the book "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." Good morning, professor.

PAUL BUTLER: Good morning. It's great to be here.

KING: So one of the big questions everyone was asking yesterday is, is this justice for the Garner family, this firing? What do you think?

BUTLER: Five years ago, the medical examiner found that the cause of Mr. Garner's death was homicide, meaning that he would not have died but for the officer using the illegal chokehold. In the opinion that was released yesterday, the judge said that the former officer lied when he claimed that he hadn't used a chokehold. The evidence was overwhelming that Pantaleo knew exactly what he was doing and that his conduct was reckless.

So I think that no one should be satisfied that, five years later, a homicidal cop who choked a man to death is no longer allowed to be a police officer. That's what's supposed to pass for justice, but it's woefully insufficient. The sad reality is that the only person connected to this case who's gone to jail is Ramsey Orta, the man who took out his cellphone video to show the whole world what the NYPD did to Eric Garner.

KING: You wrote yesterday - and I quote - "when cops are the criminals and people of color are the victims of their abuse, often there is no equal justice under the law." In a case like this, what would equal justice under the law look like?

BUTLER: It would look like accountability. It would look like the NYPD exercising responsibility and the Justice Department exercising responsibility. In this case, even though, by yesterday's ruling, a crime had to be proven in order for Officer Pantaleo to be removed from the force, five years ago, the Staten Island prosecutor's office declined to bring criminal charges.

KING: And the Justice Department, as well, declined to bring criminal charges.

BUTLER: Yes. In that case, Attorney General Barr overruled the experienced civil rights lawyers in the criminal division who believed that they could win a case against Officer Pantaleo, that they could prove that he'd broken the law. Nonetheless, his Justice Department declined to bring charges, and that's very frequently the case in which officers are accused of illegally using violence against African American and Latinx people.

In fact, in the five years since Mr. Garner's death, there have been 800 other cases in which officers in New York have been charged with using illegal chokeholds. By charge, I mean citizens have complained.

KING: Complaints from citizens, OK. Let me ask you in the minute we have left, what do you think this firing means for police accountability in the country as a whole?

BUTLER: So in those 800 cases in New York in which officers have used or been accused of using chokeholds, in fewer than 2% of those cases have there been any discipline. There have been 40 cases in which the authorities have accepted that, yes, illegal chokeholds have been used. And in those cases, the punishment has been in - people being docked vacation pay or people losing vacation days or being docked pay. So again, that's not sufficient.

So what needs to happen is that people - the police shouldn't be able to arrest people for minor infractions like selling an untaxed cigarette...

KING: Yeah.

BUTLER: ...That person (inaudible) given a summons, just like when you get a ticket.

KING: Paul Butler, author of "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." Professor Butler, thanks so much.

BUTLER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.