Eric Garner’s Family Still Has Unanswered Questions Over His Death

Theodore Hamm Sep 5, 2019

Given its protracted prominence, it’s surprising that many crucial components of the Eric Garner case remain shrouded in mystery. 

Even though NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill accepted the recommendation of the department’s disciplinary hearing judge Rosemarie Maldonado and fired officer Daniel Pantaleo on August 19, it’s still not clear why Pantaleo — who at the time of the July 2014 incident worked in a violent crimes unit — was even at the scene in the first place. 

Was Garner selling loose cigarettes? In her advisory opinion, Maldonado strongly suggests no. Garner certainly did not have 10,000 smokes or more in his possession at the time of his death, despite the felony cigarette sale charge filed by Pantaleo’s fellow officer Justin Damico, the Quality of Life coordinator for the nearby 120th Precinct. Maldonado also noted that in his online arrest report, Damico falsely checked “no” in response to whether force was used. 

Essential details of the initial investigation by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau also remain murky. At the May disciplinary hearing, we learned that the IAB had recommended charges against Pantaleo, but whether that included a call for him to be fired (or just lose vacation days) is unclear. Rather than allow the IAB to bring the case against Pantaleo, then-Commissioner Bill Bratton turned it over to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). Why the wily Bratton did so merits further scrutiny. 

Last week the activist coalition Communities United for Police Reform initiated a two-pronged effort to find out these and many more details regarding the various Garner investigations. In partnership with the Garner family and other victims of NYPD violence, civil rights lawyers Gideon Oliver and Alvin Bragg — with support from the Justice Committee, Legal Aid Society and other advocates —  have launched an initiative that poses major accountability questions for both the NYPD and the CCRB. 

Drawing on a seldom-used provision of the New York City Charter, the coalition filed a petition in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court seeking a judicial inquiry on behalf of city taxpayers, with Garner’s mother Gwen Carr and sister Ellisha Flagg Carr, Constance Malcolm (mother of cop-slain Ramarley Graham) and five other prominent city criminal justice activists as plaintiffs. The lead defendants named are Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner O’Neill. 

The petition asks a judge to grant a hearing in which the mayor and various top police brass would defend themselves against charges of official misconduct in their handling of the Garner case. The charter provision was invoked by then-Public Advocate Mark Green in 2000, who successfully challenged Mayor Giuliani over Rudy’s release of sealed juvenile records in the Patrick Dorismond case.

Among the many issues raised in the Garner filing is the “unlawful leaking of Mr. Garner’s alleged arrest history” as well as his medical history that occurred in the immediate aftermath of his death. While the NYPD’s smear campaign against Garner is a primary concern raised in the coalition’s press release, Oliver tells The Indypendent that the “sunlight measures” regarding the case take prominence. However, if a judge were to rebuke the NYPD for its leaking practices, Oliver says “we’d be very pleased if that’s the result.” 

Bragg, co-director of the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School and a declared candidate in the 2021 race for Manhattan DA, says the goal of the petition is “to bring the officers, top police officials and the mayor into an open courtroom and testify about their role in all phases of the Garner case.” In addition to the answers the Garner family and wider public would gain from the inquiry, Bragg argues that the process “may lead to fundamental reforms on the front end of future police violence cases — because those same officials won’t want to face another inquiry.” 

The second prong of the initiative is an extensive Freedom of Information Law request to the CCRB, which seeks to acquire the trove of materials produced in the investigations of the Garner case and disciplinary trial of Pantaleo. The FOIL request itself is noteworthy for many reasons, not least because it documents Bratton’s pivotal early role in steering the NYPD’s handling of the case — and because its extensive footnotes provide an excellent bibliography of Garner media coverage over the past five years. 

Oliver notes that in 2018, a Manhattan State Supreme Court judge ordered the release of a batch of NYPD documents in the Ramarley Graham killing, which gave his family overdue insight into the department’s handling of the case. As with the Graham lawsuit, the dual filings here “are not just for Eric—we’re doing this for all New Yorkers whose loved ones have been killed or brutalized by the NYPD,” Gwen and Ellisha Carr said in the press release put out by the coalition.

Although the FOIL letter specifically requests that the CCRB seek outside counsel rather rely on the city’s law department, Oliver expects the latter to handle the FOIL, try to join it with the petition, then drag it out. But however long the process takes, the fight for answers is well worth the effort. 

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