Officers to Testify About Eric Garner’s Death in Long-Delayed Inquiry


The anguished pleas of Eric Garner as he struggled in a New York City police officer’s chokehold in 2014 galvanized millions, and his last words — “I can’t breathe,” repeated 11 times and captured on video — became a rallying cry for a protest movement demanding that police officers be held accountable.

In the seven years since Mr. Garner died on a Staten Island sidewalk, the deaths of Black men and women in police custody — including some, like George Floyd, whose words in their final moments powerfully echoed Mr. Garner’s dying pleas — touched off a wave of demands for change.

Now, Mr. Garner’s death will return to public view in what may be the final milestone of the case. On Monday, a judicial inquiry into his death is set to begin, with public testimony from about a dozen witnesses, including the head of the Police Department’s internal affairs unit and several officers involved in the encounter.

The process does not directly hold the potential for new discipline or fresh settlements; the officer who choked Mr. Garner was not charged criminally but was eventually fired from the force, and Mr. Garner’s family reached a settlement with the city.

Rather, the hearing is aimed at offering greater transparency in a case that many feel has been shrouded in secrecy. And to Mr. Garner’s relatives — particularly his mother, Gwen Carr, who has spoken out against police brutality since her son’s death — the proceeding offers the prospect of some long-sought clarity.

“I’ve been waiting seven years, I need answers for this,” Ms. Carr said in an interview. “What really happened on that day?”

She added: “There’s no justice for Eric because he’s dead. For me, there only could be closure.”

The killing of Mr. Garner in July 2014 came at the beginning of a series of deaths at police officers’ hands. Three weeks later, Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson, Mo. That November, Tamir Rice was fatally shot in Cleveland.

Mr. Garner, 43, had been confronted by two police officers and accused of selling untaxed cigarettes. Cellphone video showed one officer, Daniel Pantaleo, using a prohibited chokehold to subdue him, but a grand jury did not indict the officer, and federal prosecutors declined to pursue civil rights charges.

The case spurred an executive order in 2015 from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to move the prosecution of cases of police killings from local district attorneys to a unit in the state attorney general’s office (though it has not since garnered a conviction).

Mr. Garner’s name remains prominent in protests. But for Ms. Carr and other relatives, much remained unclear for years: What was the exact chain of events? To what extent did Mr. Garner receive medical treatment at the scene? How did his prior sealed arrest history become public?

Two years ago, the Garner family sought a judicial inquiry — a rare process under the City Charter — to answer those questions among others. But city officials tried to have the effort dismissed and appealed the initial decision to proceed. This summer, a state appeals court unanimously ruled that the proceeding was warranted, writing that Mr. Garner’s was the “rare case in which allegations of significant violations of duty” were “coupled with a serious lack of substantial investigation and public explanation.”

The inquiry centers on five subjects, including the probable cause for Mr. Garner’s arrest and to what extent the actions of officers other than Mr. Pantaleo were investigated or resulted in discipline.

“One thing that will become clear is it wasn’t just about one day in July 2014,” said Alvin Bragg, one of the lawyers representing Mr. Garner’s family and a heavy favorite to become Manhattan’s next district attorney in November’s election. “Part of the hearing will be expanding the lens and showing what led to what happened — and what did or did not follow it.”

Mr. Bragg — who would work closely with the Police Department should he be elected — has been involved in the judicial inquiry effort since its inception.

Over two to three weeks, about a dozen witnesses are expected to testify, including officer Justin D’Amico, who was Mr. Pantaleo’s partner during the arrest; Sgt. Kizzy Adonis, who lost 20 vacation days after being accused of failing to properly supervise officers at the scene; and Lt. Christopher Bannon, a police commander who texted one of his officers that Mr. Garner’s death was “not a big deal” because “we were effecting a lawful arrest.”

The Police Department deferred comment to the city’s Law Department. Nicholas Paolucci, a Law Department spokesman, said in a statement that “we don’t believe there is a need for the summary inquiry to go forward as so much has already been made public about this tragic event,” while adding, “We look forward to the hearing and satisfying the court’s order.”

Erika M. Edwards, a Manhattan Supreme Court justice who is presiding, ruled that several major players from whom Mr. Garner’s family members sought testimony would not have to participate in the inquiry, including Mayor Bill de Blasio; the city’s chief medical examiner; and every police commissioner since 2014: William J. Bratton, James O’Neill and Dermot F. Shea.

The proceeding will be held virtually, to the disappointment of Ms. Carr, who said she strongly hoped to sit across from the officers in court. “I am very, very dissatisfied,” Ms. Carr said. “There’s no way that I can look them in the eye. So I don’t know how this is going to feel or turn out.”

Judge Edwards noted that she had to “balance a lot of things” in coming to the decision. “Everybody’s safety is important to me,” she said at a hearing earlier this month.

Mr. Pantaleo remained on the police force for five more years until he was fired by Mr. O’Neill and stripped of his pension benefits in 2019, after a police administrative judge had found him guilty of violating a department ban on chokeholds. Advocates’ frustrations over the delayed timeline were compounded by the decision not to dismiss any of the other officers involved in the arrest.

Now, those advocates are angered that Mr. de Blasio will not appear.

“It’s tremendously disappointing that we’re not going to hear from him,” said Kesi Foster, a lead organizer for Make the Road New York, one of the groups that filed the initial petition for the inquiry, along with Ms. Carr and the mother of Ramarley Graham, an unarmed 18-year-old killed by an officer in the Bronx in 2012.

The mayor’s office deferred to the Law Department for comment. But Mr. de Blasio has previously said that because the inquiry centers on what happened at the scene of Mr. Garner’s arrest, he did not need to testify. He has emphasized that substantive changes have been made to policing in the years since.

“It’s not about what happened after this tragedy, it’s what happened during it. That’s what the inquiry’s about,” Mr. de Blasio said during an appearance on WNYC in July. “This has been looked at exhaustively, and I feel horrible for the Garner family. I know a number of the family members. I’ve spent time with them. What happened was wrong, but we do need to move on.”

Some see value in the upcoming proceeding regardless of the mayor’s absence.

“A judicial inquiry into this says this is not just a problem of the officers that were present or of the command staff that was supposed to oversee it,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity. “My hope on the other side of this is that this kind of broader lens to the death of a father and a brother and a son can be a model for how we think about holding systems accountable.”



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