NEW YORK — “Not a big deal,” police commander Lt. Christopher Bannon commented when told by cops on the scene they had likely killed Eric Garner when they put him in a chokehold as they moved to arrest him on charges of selling loose cigarettes in 2014. The comment drew gasps when it became public May 16 during a long delayed police disciplinary hearing for New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who choked Garner to death.
As he lay dying, bleeding in his neck and eyes, Garner cried out, “I can’t breathe” 11 times. It became a rallying cry for protests in New York and across the country.
Even though a video by a bystander clearly shows Garner being strangled, neither a Staten Island grand jury nor the federal government ever filed charges against Pantaleo. The statute of limitations for any charges expires July 17, the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death.
“No big deal?” Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, angrily told reporters outside Police Department headquarters where the hearing was being held. “If one of his loved ones was on the ground dead and someone came up to him and said, ‘It’s no big deal,’ how would you feel about it?” Carr has been attending the hearings since they began May 13.
On May 15 New York medical examiner Floriana Persechino, who performed the autopsy on Garner, testified that Pantaleo’s chokehold had enough force to trigger a “lethal cascade” that killed Garner. It was “homicide,” Persechino said.
As always, the cop’s defense is to try to turn the victim into the criminal. In his opening statement to the hearing, Pantaleo’s attorney, Stuart London, said Garner triggered his own death. “The only reason [Pantaleo’s] hand went towards the neck was due to Mr. Garner’s morbid obesity and the fact that he resisted arrest,” London said to the press. “If he didn’t resist arrest we would not be here today.”
“It’s been five years,” Carr responded. “Five years we’ve been on the frontline, trying to get justice — and they’re still trying to sweep it under the rug.”
Other family members have joined Carr at the hearings. So has Iris Baez, whose son was also killed at the hands of the New York cops, and other opponents of police brutality.
When cop Justin D’Amico, Pantaleo’s partner, took the stand in his defense, he explained how he filed felony charges against Garner after he was dead to justify their moves to arrest him.
He said the two undercover cops saw Garner selling cigarettes from 100 to 200 feet away.
“Would it surprise you to learn that the actual distance is 328 feet?” Suzanne O’Hare, a lawyer for the N.Y. Civilian Complaint Review Board that is prosecuting Pantaleo, asked D’Amico. “More than a football field?” The cop said that might be correct.
O’Hare asked him why the two cops tried to make Garner stand up after he was unresponsive. “You did that because you believed he was playing possum?” she said. “Yes,” D’Amico responded.
As to the felony charges, O’Hare asked D’Amico, “You’re familiar that in order to be charged with that, it requires that you have 10,000 cigarettes, or 22,000 cigars, or 4,400 pounds of tobacco?” The cop, who had testified he found four packs of Newports in Garner’s pocket, conceded that was the law.
While it has taken five years for even these administrative charges to be heard — which can result in Pantaleo losing his job — the cops and judge don’t seem to be in any hurry to see a verdict.
After just a week of hearings, the court was recessed for four days because Pantaleo said he had scheduled vacation time. When the hearing resumed May 21, it only lasted three hours before another break, this time for two weeks or longer, because the cop’s defense team says a key witness won’t be available until then.
Carr and her supporters expressed outrage at the delays. “It’s a great burden, it’s a great amount of anxiety and emotional stress for them,” O’Hare told hearing Judge Rosemarie Maldonado. She claimed to agree, then cancelled hearings until June 5.
Carr told people outside the hearings that coming has been “very, very hard for me,” but that she’ll keep coming because “there is no other option” if she wants to see Pantaleo fired.
“I will be here every day,” she said, urging supporters to join her at the hearings. They’re held at police headquarters at 1 Police Plaza east of City Hall.