In the recent years’ tension between Americans of color and police, one major flashpoint was the death of Eric Garner.
Garner was placed in an illegal chokehold and announced he couldn’t breathe eleven times. Basketball players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during practice. Protests continued for days nationwide. “I can’t breathe” has become a rallying cry against police brutality.
Now, the Associated Press reports that NYPD officers knowingly filed inflated charges against Garner after his death — claiming Garner sold more than 10,000 cigarettes that avoided New York taxes rather than the fewer than 100 that Garner was actually carrying.
Officer Justin Damico testified for more than an hour Tuesday, speaking publicly about the death for the first time. In his testimony, Damico admitted to falsifying police reports to inflate the charges after riding in an ambulance with dying Garner.
“You initiated this on your own, writing up the arrest of a dead man?” asked lawyer Suzanne O’Hare representing the watchdog agency bringing the action, the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who allegedly killed Eric Garner with the illegal chokehold, was not indicted on any criminal charges in Garner’s death. While the New York City Medical Examiner’s office ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused in part by the chokehold, Pantaleo’s defense attorney argues that Pantaleo used a neckhold, which is legal, rather than an illegal chokehold. The testimony was part of an administrative disciplinary hearing. In the process the Board must prove Pantaleo’s actions rose to the level of criminal conduct despite Pantaleo not facing criminal charges.
The defense of Officer Pantaleo argued that because he could say that he couldn’t breathe, he clearly could breathe. He claims no wrongdoing. Pantaleo has been on desk duty since Garner’s death in July of 2014. He even received a raise in 2016, bringing his already six figure salary to almost $120,000.
The New York medical examiner found the hold applied by Pantaleo ignited “a lethal sequence of events,” but Pantaleo’s defense intends to call a St. Louis medical examiner to rebut those findings.
Chokeholds like the one that killed Garner are prohibited by the NYPD, but despite an effort on the part of the Department to retrain officers there were 133 complaints of prohibited chokeholds in 2018. While the number of complaints about the holds has dropped since Garner’s death, the number of those claims the Board has substantiated has increased.
The administrative hearing will resume June 5. Garner’s family said it is tired of the delays.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.