Return to Transcripts main page


NYPD Discusses Fate of Officer in Eric Garner Case; NYPD Fires Officer in Eric Garner Case. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 19, 2019 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] JAMES O'NEILL, NYPD COMMISSIONER: He approached Mr. Garner to make an arrest. That offense could have resulted in a summons but Mr. Garner refused to provide identification which meant what have been brought to the precinct for processing. For several minutes on that widely viewed video, Mr. Garner makes it abundantly clear that he will not go willingly with the police officers.

He refused to cooperate with the arrest and to comply with lawful orders. The video makes clear that Officer Pantaleo's original efforts to take Mr. Garner into custody were appropriate, and that he initially attended to two maneuver sanction by the police department. Officer Pantaleo first grabbed Mr. Garners' right write then attempted an arm bar technique in preparation for handcuffs to use. Mr. Garner immediately twisted and pulled and raised both of his hands while repeatedly telling officers to not to touch him. Officer Pantaleo then wrapped his arms around Mr. Garner's upper body.

Up to that point and there's tense and rapidly involving situation, there was nothing to suggest that Officer Pantaleo attempted to place Mr. Garner in a chokehold. But what happened next is the matter we must address. The two men stumbled backward towards the large plate grass window at the store front behind them and Officer Pantaleo's back made contact with the glass causing the window to visibly buckle and warp. The person videotaping the episode later testified at the NYPD trial that he thought both men would crash through the glass. At that point in the video that Officer Pantaleo seen with his arms clasped together and his left forearm pressed against Mr. Garner's neck in what constitutes a chokehold.

NYPD court ruled that while certainly not preferable that hold was acceptable during that brief moment in time because the risk of falling through the window was so high. But that (INAUDIBLE) circumstance no longer existed, the court found, when officer Pantaleo and Mr. Garner moved to the ground. As Mr. Garner balanced himself on the sidewalk on his hands and knees, Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado found that Officer Pantaleo consciously disregarded the substantial and unjustifiable risk of maneuver explicitly prohibited by the department. She found that during the struggle, Officer Pantaleo had the opportunity to readjust his grip from a prohibited chokehold to a less lethal alternative but did not make use of that opportunity. Instead, even once Mr. Garner was moved to his side on the ground with his left arm behind his back and his right hand still open and extended, Officer Pantaleo kept his hands clasped and maintained the chokehold. Mr. Garner's obvious distress is confirmed when he collapsed and grimaces. Moreover, Trials Commissioner Maldonado found that Officer Pantaleo's conduct caused physical injury that meets the (INAUDIBLE) threshold and that his recklessness caused multilayered internal bruising and hemorrhaging that impaired Mr. Garner's physical condition and caused substantial pain and was a significant factor in triggering an asthma attack.

For all of these reasons taken together even after reviewing Officer Pantaleo's commendable service record of nearly 300 arrests and 14 departmental medals earned leading up to that day, Trials Commissioner Maldonado recommended that he be dismissed from the department. In making this penalty recommendation, she wrote, this tribunal recognizes that from the outside, outset, Mr. Garner was non-compliant and argumentative, and further notes that the patrol guide allows officers to use reasonable force when necessary to take an uncooperative individual into custody. What the patrol guide did not allow, however, even when this individual was resisting arrest, was the use of prohibited chokehold.

As you know, a number of external authorities have asked many of the same questions we have about this incident. On August 19, 2014, about a month after Mr. Garner's death, the Staten Island district attorney's office announced they would impanel a grand jury and present evidence on that matter. On December 3, 2014, those 23 Staten Island residents voted to not indict Officer Pantaleo clearing him of criminal wrongdoing. That same day, the United States attorney general announced that the U.S. Department of Justice would conduct its own investigation into Mr. Garner's death and will bring civil rights charges against Officer Pantaleo.

In the intervening years, the Justice Department made ongoing requests of the NYPD asking us to delay our internal disciplinary process until the civil rights investigation was complete. And we honored those requests as the process stretched from one administration to the next with no action by federal prosecutors. And so on July 21, 2018, we decided to begin NYPD proceedings. Members of the public in general and Mr. Garner's family in particular have grown understandably impatient.

[12:35:04] The trial began on May 13, 2019. In July 16, 2019, one day before the five-year statute of limitations expired, the Justice Department announced it would not file federal charges against Officer Pantaleo. Then on August 2, 2019 with Officer Pantaleo's NYPD trial concluded, the Trials Commissioner Maldonado ruled that Officer Pantaleo's use of a prohibited chokehold was reckless and constituted a gross deviation from the standard of conduct established for a New York city police officer. After noting that Officer Pantaleo had admitted he was aware that chokeholds are prohibited by the department, she further concluded with strongly worded and repeated warnings about the potential lethal effects of chokeholds found throughout multiple sections of the training materials, it is evident that the department made its 2006 recruits keenly aware of the inherent dangers associated with the application of pressure to the neck. Given this training, a New York city police officer could reasonably be expected to be aware of the potentially lethal effects connected with the use of a prohibited chokehold and be vigilant in issuing its use.

From the start of this process, I was determined to carry out my responsibility as police commissioner unaffected by public opinions demanding one outcome over another. I examined the totality of the circumstances and relied on the facts. And I stand before you today confident that I have reached the correct decision. And that has certainly not made it an easy decision. I served for nearly 34 years as a New York city cop before becoming police commissioner. I can tell that you I -- had I been in Officer Pantaleo's situation, I may have made similar mistakes. And had I made those mistakes, I would have wished I used the arrival of backup officers to get the situation more time to make that arrest. And I wished that I released my grip before it became a chokehold. Every time I watch this video, I say to myself as probably all of you do to Mr. Garner, don't do it. Comply. Officer Pantaleo, don't do it. I said that about the decisions made by both Officer Pantaleo and Mr. Garner. But none of us can take back our decisions most especially when it led to the death of another human being.

I was not in Officer Pantaleo's situation that day, I was chief of patrol and later that year, chief of the department. In that position, I proposed our neighborhood policing models saw that the same cops would be in the same neighborhoods everyday so that relationships would replace preconceptions. So that problem solving and prevention would become tools officers were trained in and supported in using. And therefore, one of the greatest challenges of the police profession here in New York city and elsewhere, will always remain arresting someone who intends to resist that arrest. Communication and deescalation techniques are employed were possible. But more often than the police and the public alike would prefer, varying levels of force are used to ensure compliance. Society gives our police the legal authority to use acceptable levels of force when necessary because police cannot otherwise do their job.

Every day in New York people receive summons or arrested by officers without any physical force being used. But some people choose to verbally and/or physically resist the enforcement action lawfully being taken against them. Those situations are unpredictable and dangerous to everyone involved. The street is never the right place to argue the appropriateness of an arrest. That is what our courts are for. Being a police officer is one of the hardest jobs in the world. That is not a statement to elicit sympathy from those we serve. It's a fact. Cops have to make choices sometimes very quickly every single day. Some are split second life and death choices, oftentimes they are choices that will be thoroughly and repeatedly examined by those with much more time to think about them than the police officer had. And those decisions are scrutinized and second guessed both fairly and unfairly.

No one believes that Officer Pantaleo got out of bed on July 17, 2014 thinking he would make choices and take actions during an otherwise routine arrest that lead to another person's death. But officer's choices and actions even made under extreme pressure matter. It is unlikely that Mr. Garner thought he was in such poor health that a brief struggle with the police would cause to his death. He should have decided against resisting arrest but a man with a family lost his life and that is an irreversible tragedy.

[12:40:04] And a hardworking police officer with a family, a man that took this job to do good, to make a difference in his home community has now lost his chosen career. And that is different kind of tragedy.

In this case, the unintended consequence of Mr. Garner's death must have a consequence of its own. Therefore, I agree with the deputy commissioner of trials legal findings and recommendations, it is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York city police officer. In carrying out the court's verdict in this case, I take no pleasure. I know many will disagree with this decision and that is their right. There are no victors here today. Not the Garner family, not the community at large, and certainly not the courageous men and women of the police department who put their own lives on the line every single day in service and to the people of this great city.

Today is a day of reckoning but can also be a day of reconciliation. We must move forward together as one city, determined to secure safety for all, safety for all New Yorkers and safety for every police officer working daily to protect all of us.

I'll now take your questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. O'Neill, (INAUDIBLE) on this decision as you said was very difficult but -- and if you could (INAUDIBLE) the last couple of days that was so difficult and you would decide (INAUDIBLE).

O'NEILL: I'm not going to talk about rumors. Let's talk about the decision that Rosemarie made, the decision that was affirmed by Deputy Commissioner Tucker, and the decision I just made today.


O'NEILL: It's an extremely difficult decision.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When did you actually make this decision? Was this up to the wire or had you made this decision a couple days ago?

O'NEILL: Hey Mark, I think you know me long enough by now that this was not an easy decision. It's not something that I could make over a few hours. You know, I've been thinking about this since the day I was sworn in as police commissioner. So it's -- the decision was made in the last couple of days.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Commissioner, has there been any determination made about any mentioned rights or benefits?

O'NEILL: Yes. He's being terminated. So whatever contributions he made to the pension system he'll get back.

Marcia? Hold on.


O'NEILL: So immediately, I'm sending out my remarks and the video of this press conference so they know what you all know. And I've been a cop a long time. And if I was still a cop, I'd probably be mad at me. I would. You're not looking out for us. But I am.

It's my responsibility as police commissioner to look out for the city and certainly to look out for the New York city police officers. They took this job to make a difference. And you all know the city has been transformed, had a lot of help. But it's the cops out there right now and the thousands that have come before us that continue to make this city safe. Some will be angry. And I have a great executive staff. These police officers do a terrific job each and every day and we'll have to work through this. It's a resilient organization.


O'NEILL: I did this based on the evidence and testimony at the trial.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Commissioner, our understanding is that negotiations went back and forth Friday and Saturday and then at one point you were told or instructed by city hall the thing has to go a certain way.

O'NEILL: No. That's not -- this is my decision. There are a couple possible outcomes but this is the decision that the police commissioner makes. This is a disciplinary case like other disciplinary cases. And it's my decision.

Rocco, I'm going to get to you in a second. Hold on.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you follow the trial or did you wait until the end of the trial? And then can you talk about what you --

O'NEILL: I did not follow the trial day to day. I waited for the testimony to come up and the evidence to come up.

[12:45:00] I have a staff that works for me up at my office. They do disciplinary cases. They reviewed it. We got Rosemarie's decision, we look at that and we moved forward.

Right here, the blonde haired.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you spoken to the Garner family?

O'NEILL: I have not. Commissioner Tucker has attempted to reach out to them. A couple different phone calls. Didn't happen too long ago. We're waiting for a call back.

Away in the corner over there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Have you spoken to Officer Pantaleo (INAUDIBLE) or is this the first time he is hearing this? O'NEILL: No, this is the first time. This is the announcement -- it was from here. What's that?


O'NEILL: I talked to with Mayor de Blasio about process and possible outcomes.


O'NEILL: Ashley?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Commissioner, in her decision, the Judge Maldonado indicated that Pantaleo was (INAUDIBLE) and she also raised questions about the credibility of other officers that were not on trial in this case. Can you speak about that that comments (INAUDIBLE)?

O'NEIL: So this all -- this whole situation transpired in seconds. I'm sure no one in this room, if they were involved in -- no one in this room probably had to except the police had to arrest anybody in a physical struggle. And if they could recount step for step what they did, I think that would be nothing short of a miracle. This is the decision Rosemary made -- Rosemarie made. This is a -- was affirmed by the first deputy commissioner and I'm agreeing with that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, just to be clear. Are you making this decision to agree with the judge or are you making this decision because you believe it is also the right decision?

O'NEILL: I am -- this is -- there is a department trial. There is a process. Rosemarie made the decision again affirmed by Ben Tucker and I agree with both of their findings.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You spoke about wishing that Eric Garner wouldn't have resisted and would have just complied. You also said you wish that Officer Pantaleo would have waited for backup. So what is the lesson for your officers coming out of this decision?

O'NEILL: So immediately after this back in 2014, Ben Tucker was the deputy commissioner of training still at the time. We put all of our police officers through a three day course including deescalation. We've done a lot of other things that -- we've done fair and impartial policing and every police officer has wearing a body-worn camera now.

There's a lot of things that come out of this incident. And every time there is an incident that affects that NYPD there's always something to learn.

Right behind you? Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Commissioner, you pointed out in the beginning of your remarks about Officer Pantaleo's good record as a police officer but he was also being monitored for --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- for using use of force. How do you square those two things? And is the monitoring working or should --

O'NEILL: Officer Pantaleo had 289 arrests. As far as we can tell, searching through searching through all the records, no other person that he arrested was injured. He did have a number of resisting arrests which is not unusual. He had some CCRBs, the one that was -- where he was substantiated, that was a bad stop, not use of force. So all of these have to be taken in its totality.

Out of that 289 arrests, there were a number of gun arrests. And what does the NYPD do each and everyday? We try to reduce gun violence in this city. So that -- I have to look at his record. That's part of the disciplinary system.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You had a decision not to discipline Officer Pantaleo impact on the community, have any factors in your decision making in this?

O'NEILL: So I'm not going to stand up here and say I didn't think about that. But I had to be guided by the facts that were brought out in the department trial and that was sent up to our office. I see a lot of journalists here that went through 2014. The protests, the murder of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos to say that, you know, that's always -- that is never out of my mind. I think about that every day whether there is a department trial or not.

So I can't stand up here and say I didn't think about that. But that's not what -- how I made my final decision.

Right here.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mayor de Blasio promised (INAUDIBLE) in explaining your decision, you refer to police standards (INAUDIBLE). Did you personally believe this outcome constitutes justice?

O'NEILL: This is the outcome of our trial. We need it to be fair and impartial. And it was a fair and impartial trial.

Right here with the glasses.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Has anyone spoken to the family to Mr. Garner yet? What would you say to them right now?

O'NEILL: There's -- from day one we said that there was going to be a fair and impartial trial and this is the result.

[12:50:03] Make no mistake about it, this is a tragedy for the Garner family. I fully understand that. Mr. Garner was somebody's son, somebody's dad. Everybody in the NYPD understand that's.

Right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A couple questions. First when this termination effective, is it immediate?

O'NEILL: It's an immediate termination.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And second, reading Judge Maldonado's decision, was there anything in it that you disagreed with?

O'NEILL: I agreed with the content of her decision.

Who didn't go yet? Right here. Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Commissioner, during the department's trial, it came out that a lot of the partner (INAUDIBLE) over Garner's arrest, did any part of the other people who testify come you to saying they should be brought up on internal charges?

O'NEILL: Right after this, (INAUDIBLE) people from internal affairs looked at each officer that was involved in this. There was a number of civilian witnesses and number of police officer witnesses. And it was (INAUDIBLE) received charges and Officer Pantaleo.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Commissioner, you spoke a bit about your time as a cop. Would you approach this thing from a position of almost reluctance (INAUDIBLE)?

O'NEILL: So I can't remove myself from the fact that I was a uniformed cop for 34 years. And I think that's what makes this so difficult that every member of law enforcement in this country that works and keeps this country safe and the city safe looked at that and said that could possibly be me. And that's -- it's in my DNA. It's who I am. It's -- but as police commissioner, I have to think about the city. I have to think about the rules and regs of the NYPD and make sure that people follow them.

In the back.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) what's your biggest concern (INAUDIBLE)?

O'NEILL: What did you say?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) what's your biggest concern that the department (INAUDIBLE) by this decision?

O'NEILL: I think I stated that. And I said if I were still a police officer, I would probably not be happy. But we've been through a lot of things with the NYPD and it's great history. I know that men and women that do this job are resilient. Somebody calls for help, dials 911, someone flags him down, they're not going to think about this decision. They're going to think about why they took this job and help that person no matter who they are.

Right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Before you announce your decision, you said you were confident this was the right one. Was there something in particular? Was there a moment when you realized that? And what do you see as commissioner that the officer on the screen might be upset with the decision doesn't see?

O'NEILL: So as I said, I went through the testimony. I looked at the video a number of times. I know what the definition of a chokehold is. This is what led me to this decision. And again, a difficult decision.

At the back.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: It's the New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill explaining there. He's been going on for 20 minutes. Now, his decision, he says it was a painful decision but his decision ultimately to fire, to terminate Officer Daniel Pantaleo. He was the officer held accountable for the death of Eric Garner in a chokehold more than five years ago. Five years and one month ago.

This case has dragged on for years because of Justice Department and other grand jury investigations. The police commissioner saying it was a painful decision but he had determined that a police trial judge was correct in saying that Officer Pantaleo, yes, put Eric Garner in a chokehold but then when they fell to the ground had every opportunity to move to what the commissioner called less lethal alternatives as he tried to bring him into custody. Eric Garner was resisting arrest. But the police commissioner saying that Eric -- that Officer Pantaleo should have stopped that prohibited chokehold.

Our crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz has been in New York tracking all this. Shimon, the commissioner saying he is sure a lot of men and women in blue in New York city police don't like this decision today but that he believes it's the right one.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes. And, John, while you're seeing him stand there for so long now, some 30 minutes taking questions, he's really speaking in some ways to the rank-and- file of the police department. He knows that they're not going to be happy with this decision. And that is something that has weighed very heavily on the police commissioner.

Look, I know from talking to people that this was not an easy decision for him because he was very concerned about the impact of this kind of a decision, firing this police officer, leaving him without a pension and essentially just saying OK, we're done with you. You violated some of the rules and regulations of the NYPD. You're now fired and you have nothing after your several years of being in the police department concerned him greatly.

[12:55:06] This was not a decision as we know and as we can hear from him, he was pretty emotional at times that came easy. The one thing we're not hearing in a lot of his statements so far is anything about the mayor. And we should not forget the role that the mayor had in all of this. Remember it was at a CNN debate that the mayor stood up and said that the Garner family would have justice at some point. It was after the Department of Justice issued its decision not to pursue charges, not to charge the officer in this case. And all that was left for the family was whether or not the police department, the NYPD was going to take action against Officer Pantaleo. And the mayor essentially promises to the community, promised it to the world saying that the family was going to get justice.

And so we'll hear from the mayor in a little while. And in the coming days, we're probably going to hear stories about some of the pressure that the mayor put on the police commissioner to make sure that this officer is fired. And we'll see where it goes from there.

Look, this officer will be able to sue. He's going to sue the NYPD to try and get his job back. They're going to argue in court that this is unfair. The Department of Justice did not bring charges. A prosecutor (INAUDIBLE) here in New York didn't bring charges. So there could be some recourse down the line.

I can tell you in covering the NYPD for many years and in talking to a lot of police officers, they were very worried about this decision because they felt that if the commissioner, if the Commissioner O'Neill fires this officer, they would have no faith in him as their police commissioner. There was a lot of speculation about what the police commissioner was going to do. Was he going to resign? Was the mayor going to fire him?

I can tell you there were all sorts of rumors circulating through the NYPD and the lead-up to this decision. And now the police commissioner making his decision. For some they might be surprised that this -- should have been an easier decision for this police commissioner but for whatever reason, you know, we heard him explain now. He was a cop, he was looking at this from a police officer, a New York city police officer for 34 years and having to make this decision was really, really tough for him, John.

KING: And Shimon, in the moment we have left, just explain to anybody watching, this was five years and a month ago. There was an original grand jury that looked into this. They decided not to prosecute on local charges. Then it was held up, the commissioner said because first the Obama administration then the Trump administration's Justice Department was looking at it. So this is the end of any penalty punishment against Officer Pantaleo but not the end of this drama.

PROKUPECZ: It is over, you know, it is over for the officer obviously. There was a lot of end fighting even at the Department of Justice at the time between the FBI, between the Department of Justice. There were people at the Department of Justice who wanted to bring charges against Pantaleo that obviously after Trump came in, that did not happen.

So -- but this is the end of the line here certainly for the family. I think this is going to be good news for them, for the mayor. He's going to be happy with this outcome. And now we see, you know, what this officer does and what the union does. And do they sue the NYPD?

KING: All right. And we'll see that and we'll watch the legal fallout, we'll watch the political fallout.

Brianna Keilar picking up our coverage after a quick break.