NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday that he regrets trusting the U.S. Department of Justice after federal prosecutors declined to charge a city policeman who used a fatal chokehold on Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, five years ago.
FILE PHOTO: New York City Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio attends a rally in New York City, U.S., May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon/File Photo
He also said that New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill would decide by August whether to punish or fire Daniel Pantaleo, the white officer who has been on desk duty since he was seen in bystanders’ cellphone videos putting Garner in a chokehold for about seven seconds on July 17, 2014.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced here that it did not reach a conclusive determination as to whether Pantaleo willfully committed misconduct, the necessary element to bring federal charges that Pantaleo violated Garner’s civil rights through excessive use of force. Garner is heard in videos saying “I can’t breathe!” at least 11 times shortly before he died.
Garner’s death on a sidewalk during an arrest on suspicion of illegally selling untaxed cigarettes played a role in the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
De Blasio said he was surprised at the outcome and regretted delaying the start of disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo at the Justice Department’s request.
“I regret trusting the Department of Justice, I really do,” de Blasio told reporters on Wednesday when asked about his handling of the Garner case. “In a million years, I could not have believed that the Justice Department would act the way it did. It literally was inconceivable.”
Pantaleo was the latest example of a law enforcement officer in the United States to avoid criminal liability here in killings of unarmed black men in recent years.
De Blasio, who is running to be the Democratic candidate in next year’s presidential election, has been criticized for inaction in the case. Garner’s relatives and several civic leaders stood on City Hall’s steps on Tuesday and took turns demanding de Blasio fire Pantaleo and other officers involved.
Protesters also planned to march to the New York Police Department’s headquarters in lower Manhattan on Wednesday.
Weighing in on whether the police commissioner should fire Pantaleo would rob the officer of his due process rights, said the mayor, who has expressed sympathy with Garner’s family.
Garner’s mother Gwen Carr said the mayor may be her last hope for some restitution.
“We’ve been failed by every other source,” Carr told CBS News. “The de Blasio administration has blocked us up to this point. So I want the de Blasio administration to step up, because he can fire the officer at any time.”
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Grant McCool