It’s been seven years since Eric Garner was killed during a police stop on Staten Island. Video of Garner’s death in a chokehold ignited protests, but yielded few consequences: Officer Daniel Pantaleo faced no criminal charges, and it would be five years before he was fired from the NYPD. But next month, the Garner family is hoping to get answers: A judicial inquiry, tasked with investigating allegations of “neglect of duty” by NYPD officers and other high-ranking city officials surrounding Garner’s killing, is set to begin this October.
The city of New York tried to have the judicial inquiry into Eric Garner’s death dismissed entirely. Then it tried to delay the proceeding. Now, the city is largely ignoring a court order demanding it produce documents related to Garner’s death.
In July, Judge Erika Edwards ordered the city of New York to produce a broad range of documents, including any handwritten notes, recordings, transcripts, printouts, “radio and telephonic communications” or other material regarding Garner’s arrest, the NYPD’s use of force, any medical attention that was or was not provided to Garner, information omitted from the initial police report, and leaks to the press. That material, the judge said, needed to be turned over within 30 days.
The day after the deadline on August 22nd, the city had turned over a total of 15 transcripts, and fewer than 10 pages of additional documents.
In a letter to the judge explaining the scant amount of evidence the city had made available, lawyers for the city claimed it was “highly unlikely that any responsive materials would exist and, if they did, be able to be located,” adding that an effort “to identify, locate, and retrieve such materials, the scope would be of such magnitude that it would likely take months.”
“It’s just like a slap in the face,” Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, tells Rolling Stone. “They waited until exactly the last moment before they even said they had turned over all the discovery [material] that they were going to turn over, and they weren’t going to look for more.”
In lieu of producing all of the discovery documents requested, the city is asking the petitioners, including Garner’s family, to rely on documents produced as part of a separate FOIL request made years earlier. But advocates say those documents have been heavily redacted.
“The city agencies and the respondents in this case have both slow-walked and stonewalled in their responses, and we’ve had to claw tooth and nail to get documents and to get disclosures, both in the FOIL and in the context of those proceedings,” says Gideon Oliver, a police misconduct attorney representing Garner’s family and the other petitioners.
Garner was stopped by police on Staten Island on July 17th, 2014 for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. In cellphone footage captured during the stop, Garner denies the charge and complains that police officers have been harassing him. NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo went on to arrest Garner, using a chokehold —banned by department policy — to restrain him.
The video shows Garner gasping for air, telling officers “I can’t breathe” — a plea that would become a rallying cry in the Black Lives Matter movement. The medical examiner later ruled Garner’s death a homicide, the result of “compression of the neck.” But in a secret proceeding that fall, a grand jury declined to indict Pataleo on any charges. Five years later, under sustained pressure from activists, Pantaleo was fired by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, who declared he could “no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.”
For Garner’s family, and for advocates of police reform, Pantaleo’s firing five years after the fact does not constitute anything close to a full accounting of the events that went wrong that day, or in the days that followed.
“There were several things that happened that day that need to be exposed,” says Carr. “There were officers who lied on official reports; there were officers who looked the other way while my son was being murdered; other officers pounced on my son while he laid helplessly on that hot ground… All of these things need to be brought out.”
Garner’s family hopes the October inquiry will answer questions that remain about Garner’s killing and how it was handled in the aftermath, such as why the initial police report included no mention of the chokehold that killed Garner; who accessed, and leaked to the press, Garner’s sealed arrest record; and who leaked to the media information about Garner’s medical conditions (he had asthma) and his autopsy report.
But, if the city’s cooperation to this point is any indication, prying those answers from officials will be a painful process. “This is beyond slow walking. It’s really obstruction,” says Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, one of the groups that has joined Garner’s family in their petition. “The city has missed every deadline that was set, has had to get extensions, has not completely disclosed information that they have been asked to disclose.”
In Kang’s opinion, all that slow-walking has been to a single end: “We believe that the city is trying to narrow the scope of this… We know that, in this case with the family of Eric Garner, the mayor himself was involved in key discussions at various stages. He said so himself to the press over the years that he’s been involved at key decision points, supposedly, to help ensure that there was justice — but what we saw instead was that he helped to ensure that there was obstruction at every stage.”
Lawyers for Garner’s family and Communities United for Police Reform have repeatedly argued that de Blasio should be compelled to testify at the inquiry. The judge has denied their requests, as well as requests to hear from other high-ranking officials, including the police commissioner. (The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
“Those were his officers. He should take responsibility,” Carr says of de Blasio. “It should have never dragged on this long. He should have fired those officers. He talks very big about how he commends the people in Minnesota for taking immediate action [in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder]. But that is what he should have done.”
As of now, at least 13 witnesses, including officers who were present at the scene of Garner’s death, have been ordered to testify at the inquiry, which is scheduled to begin October 25th.
Carr is hopeful that the proceedings will finally offer some truth. “I would like to see all those officers who were involved in my son’s death that day stand accountable. What we’re looking for is transparency, and we’re not getting that,” Carr says.
What she’s not expecting is any form of justice. “Justice is the wrong word to use… There is no justice for my son. My son is gone. You cannot get justice,” Carr says. “For me, it would be closure.”