Civilian Review Board Substantiates Charges Against Policeman in Eric Garner Case

After years of delays, the city finally admits Daniel Pantaleo acted improperly

A July 2016 march demanding justice in the Eric Garner case. Credit: Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa USA/AP

New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board has substantiated two complaints against Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City policeman caught on tape in the infamous Eric Garner case. Rolling Stone has learned the board ruled that Pantaleo did in fact use a chokehold, and also ruled that Pantaleo restricted Garner's breathing.

The CCRB recommended departmental charges – the strongest possible reprimand – in the case.

This is the first real step toward discipline of officer Pantaleo in the three years since Garner's killing. While the ruling does not necessarily mean he actually will be disciplined by the NYPD, it does at least mean a group of city investigators has finally conceded that Pantaleo used a banned procedure and improper force.

Pantaleo's name has been infamous since July 17th, 2014, when he was captured on video putting an arm around the neck of the 43-year-old Garner. The arrest was allegedly about the sale of untaxed cigarettes, although the city has never demonstrated that Garner was actually doing anything illegal at the time.

Garner called out, "I can't breathe" 11 times in a desperate struggle, but officer Pantaleo kept Garner in a chokehold, a banned procedure according to the NYPD manual. A medical examiner later ruled his death a homicide. Pantaleo avoided trial after a Staten Island grand jury no-billed his indictment.

While researching an upcoming book on the case, I Can't Breathe, I learned a consistent theme of such cases is the extreme slowness of the justice bureaucracy when it comes to brutality allegations. Whether it involves criminal charges, or civil lawsuits, or even internal police discipline like this CCRB process, high-profile cases often get dragged out for extended periods of time, exhausting families and stalling public outrage.

The slow pace to rule on the chokehold question in Pantaleo's case is doubly infuriating because the city's own police commissioner, Bill Bratton, said just days after Garner's death that "this would appear to have been a chokehold."

Citing state civil rights laws, the CCRB declined to comment on the case. Pantaleo's lawyer, Stuart London, also declined comment.

Reached this week, the man who ran the CCRB in the wake of Garner's death, noted civil rights lawyer Richard Emery, laments the slow pace of the case. Emery, who left the agency in April of last year, says the CCRB process was delayed in part because of an agreement to hold back on disciplining Pantaleo until state and federal criminal proceedings had concluded.

"If this is true, it's good to see the CCRB finally take action," Emery says. "This case has taken far too long, because of the system of the CCRB deferring to prosecutors."

The Department of Justice is still considering federal civil rights charges in the Garner case, and a grand jury has been convened to consider the matter. The final resolution of Pantaleo's internal police discipline will likely not come until after the federal case has been resolved one way or the other.

The CCRB does not prosecute criminal charges. It merely investigates abuse allegations against police and issues recommendations for or against internal police discipline. CCRB findings are forwarded to the police commissioner and to the city's Department Advocate's Office, who ultimately issue disciplinary rulings.

The CCRB, after it completes its investigations, issues one of six recommendations. A "substantiated" finding means the investigators concluded that the officer both committed the act in question and was not justified in doing so.

The CCRB in the extant case involving Pantaleo issued two "substantiated" rulings. It ruled "PO Daniel Pantaleo used a chokehold against Eric Garner," and also that "PO Daniel Pantaleo restricted Eric Garner's breathing."

Pantaleo has a not-inconsiderable history with the CCRB.

Earlier this year, Pantaleo's CCRB records were leaked to ThinkProgress. They showed Pantaleo had faced 14 allegations of misconduct prior to the Garner case, with four of those having been substantiated. The worst punishment he received was two docked vacation days.

The CCRB leaker, incidentally, was fired after that incident.

Pantaleo is still on the NYPD payroll. In the first two years after the incident, he reportedly even earned as much as $40,000 in overtime.

There's no guarantee he will ever be disciplined for either of the new substantiated complaints. The strongest penalty Pantaleo could face via this internal review process is termination. But the police commissioner has the power to disregard any recommendations for discipline, and the department's history with police officers who use chokeholds is not encouraging.

In a study conducted by NYPD Inspector General Phillip Eure in the wake of the Garner case, it was found officers seldom, if ever, received serious discipline for using the dangerous procedure.

In nine of ten cases Eure looked at, the CCRB recommended the strongest possible discipline – i.e., departmental charges against the officer.

In each of those nine cases, the department ultimately opted for a lesser punishment, ranging from no punishment at all to the loss of five vacation days.

Eric Garner's birthday would have been next week. He would have been 47 years old.