Protesters leave the DOJ building to circle the block, chanting. (Leslie Bonilla/VOA News)
Protesters leave the DOJ building to circle the block, chanting. (L. Bonilla/VOA)

Updated July 16, 1:15 pm

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice announced it will not bring civil rights charges against the white New York City police officer involved in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man in 2014.

“Attorney General Barr thoroughly considered this case and made a decision himself, and that is the decision of the department,” said Richard Donahue, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York about the case regarding Eric Garner.

New York police officers were attempting to arrest Garner, then 43, for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. When Garner resisted, asking officers not to touch him and batting their hands away, they restrained him. Garner, who was heard saying he couldn't breathe, died in the altercation that followed.

The DOJ concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Daniel Pantaleo, the officer accused of killing Garner, had violated the federal Civil Rights Act. To do so, Donahue said, the government would have had to prove Pantaleo willfully used more force than he could have believed was necessary.

FILE - New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo leaves his house in Staten Island, New York, May 13, 2019.

Proving willful violation is the “highest standard of intent in code by law,” said Donahue, adding, “An officer’s mistake, fear, misperception, or even poor judgement does not constitute willful conduct under federal civil rights law.”

Donahue said the attorneys themselves weren't convinced of Pantaleo’s willful use of unreasonable force. He noted that Pantaleo’s early attempts to use two police-approved tactics to restrain Garner indicated he didn’t intend to cause Garner unreasonable harm. The disputed banned chokehold came only after Pantaleo was knocked into a window, and lasted just seven seconds, he said.

Family and activists respond

Prosecutors met with Garner’s family Tuesday morning to explain the decision, Donahue said. The meeting included Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, and widow, Esaw Snipes. The family received a $5.9 million settlement from New York City in 2015.

“Make no mistake about it, we’re going to continue to push,” Carr said. “You could push back, but we’re going to push forward.”

She called for Pantaleo and the other officers to be fired, saying, “The streets of New York are not safe with them walking around.”

“This city and country must feel the power of black organizers,” read a Facebook post by Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, which hosted a rally Monday in front of the Justice Department headquarters in Washington Monday in support of Garner. The statement echoed Chairman Hawk Newsome, who said at the rally that the group would “shut down New York City” if the DOJ declined to charge Pantaleo.

Black Lives Matter of Greater New York Chairman Hawk Newsome gestures at Monday’s rally, wearing a shirt printed with Eric Garner’s last words. (L. Bonilla/VOA)

At Monday’s Washington rally, the group of about 25 denounced whey called an insensitive media cycle and opportunist politicians for disregarding Garner, as well as other black men killed by police.

“Where are the elected officials? The people we voted in office that we voted in office to represent us?” asked Nupol Kiazolu, the organization’s 19-year-old president.

She called out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, both freshman Democratic Congresswomen, as well as presidential candidates Senator Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden.

“All these people that are running for president of the United States, that are pandering for black votes right now, where the hell are you?” Kiazolu asked Monday.

Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in Garner’s support Tuesday morning.

Video goes viral

A video of Garner, with Pantaleo’s arm around his neck and three other officers holding him down, went viral in 2014. His death sparked waves of protests against police brutality, his last words "I can't breathe" plastered across T-shirts and strewn through news articles.

“Since [the video], Eric has died a million times over. America has watched Eric Garner die a million times over,” said Newsome.

Director of Community Relations Ares Davoice holds up a shirt with names of black people killed by police, including Andrew Pierce. “I can’t breathe” was also among his last words. (L. Bonilla/VOA)

The federal government would have had until Wednesday to file charges against Pantaleo and any of the other New York City police officers involved in the arrest. The statute of limitations on the federal civil rights charges expires July 17, the five-year anniversary of Garner’s death.

Though Garner’s death was ruled a homicide, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on criminal charges in 2014. Donahue said Tuesday that a federal investigation, which had been fraught with infighting, had closed as well.

Results have not been released for an administrative trial of Pantaleo that ended last month. The penalties in that case range from Pantaleo losing vacation days to being terminated. Though Pantaleo was stripped of his badge and gun after Garner’s death, he has remained on desk duty.

Prosecutors in the administrative trial argued that his alleged chokehold, which the New York police department  has banned completely since the 1990s, killed Garner. A lack of oxygen triggered an asthma attack, which caused the cardiac arrest that killed him, the medical examiner who performed Garner’s autopsy said.

The defense said Pantaleo was actually attempting a “seatbelt” hold, which puts an officer’s arms around the subject’s torso and shoulder. His Defense lawyer said that what led to Garner's death instead was his own poor health, which included obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma.

Police killings of black men and boys have been a flashpoint in police-community relations for years.

A Washington Post database reports 102 black people have been shot and killed by police in 2019, out of 487 total cases.