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What's happening: Federal prosecutors on Tuesday announced they would not pursue civil rights charges against the white New York City police officer who used a chokehold that led to the death of Eric Garner in 2014.
The officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was attempting to arrest Garner, a black man, on suspicion of selling cigarettes on a street corner when he used a banned chokehold as he and other officers wrestled Garner to the ground. In video that surfaced after the arrest, Garner can be heard saying "I can't breathe" 11 times while laying face down on the sidewalk. Pantaleo continues to work with the department, but was moved to desk duty.
The phrase "I can't breathe" became a rallying cry for activists protesting police violence against black people. T-shirts featuring the phrase were worn by a number of prominent celebrities and athletes, including LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. The Black Lives Matter movement would become a national flashpoint a month after Garner's death, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
A local grand jury had previously declined to pursue criminal charges against Pantaleo and his fellow officers for their role in Garner's death. Tuesday was the last opportunity for federal authorities to charge Pantaleo with violating Garner's civil rights before the five-year statute of limitations. Attorney General William Barr reportedly overruled members of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to make the final decision not to pursue charges.
Why there's debate: The decision not to pursue charges led to an intense reaction from activists, particularly Garner's family members. "Today we can't breathe," said his mother, Gwen Carr. The lack of legal repercussions for Pantaleo sends a message that police officers are above the law and that the lives of black people don't matter, critics say.
There is also anger over the fact that Pantaleo has been able to remain employed with the NYPD for the past five years. "Don’t apologize to me, fire the officer,” Garner's daughter Emerald Snipes shouted from the courthouse steps after hearing the Justice Department's decision.
Others argue that the decision not to press charges was correct because it was unlikely federal prosecutors could meet the high standard of proof required to convict Pantaleo. A not guilty verdict after a prolonged trial, they say, would have been more controversial and may have led to violent protests.
What's next: The NYPD recently completed a disciplinary hearing into Pantaleo's actions that could lead to suspension or termination. The department said it is still deliberating the matter and the actions of the Department of Justice will not influence its decision. Garner's family said they will continue to fight for justice. A lawyer representing the family said they will attempt to revive the federal case against Pantaleo under the next presidential administration.
"Make no mistake about it, we're going to still push," Garner's mother said. "You can push back, but we're pushing forward because this is not the end."
If Pantaleo's actions weren't against the law, we need to change the laws.
"The system was never meant to protect us, and while we should continue to make demands of district attorneys and the Department of Justice, we should also aim to overhaul and rebuild our justice system into one that no longer relies on a bloated police state that targets the black community." — Patrisse Cullors, USA Today
Criticism of the Garner case should go far beyond AG Barr and the Trump administration.
"A range of politicians and law enforcement officials in both parties, at both the state and local level, spent years non-pursuing the Garner case. It would be simplistic and not really accurate to make it about Barr." — journalist Matt Taibbi, on Twitter
Police officers' fear of black men should not be a free pass for violence.
"I guess my question is at what point should we have expected a trained law-enforcement officer not to be afraid still while he has a citizen in a f***ing chokehold? Was he still afraid the first time Eric Garner said, "I can't breathe"? How about the second time? How about when Garner blacked out? Was the officer still afraid, or was that a "misperception," or perhaps, "poor judgment"? How about seconds before the officer killed Eric Garner? Was that a "mistake"? Jesus, some people will believe anything." — Charles P. Pierce, Esquire
The decision further erodes trust between the black community and law enforcement.
"Communities throughout the country continue to see black men brutalized at the hands of police — without consequence or recourse. This does nothing but further the racial divide and lead to ongoing mistrust between communities and law enforcement. The Justice Department's decision makes this divide even deeper." — Joey Jackson, CNN
Legal ethics discourage filing charges in cases that are unlikely to end in conviction.
"If prosecutors bring a case when they have relatively little chance of a conviction, the effect on the defendant deserves consideration. The experience of being charged with a crime and being prosecuted is an enormous burden. According to this argument, an individual who has not committed a crime should not be subjected to the burden of prosecution in order to serve the public interest in discouraging other crimes." — Noah Feldman, Bloomberg
The standards of proof are high for a reason. The DOJ is right not to press charges.
"Barr’s decision is the right one. Our justice system sets high legal standards that must be maintained." — Kaylee McGhee, Washington Examiner
Regardless of the legal standards, Pantaleo should have been fired years ago.
"Given the facts of the case, it’s hard to see his continued employment by the Police Department as anything but an insult to the people of New York." — Editorial, New York Times
Laws covering police use of force need to be fixed.
"The decision highlights the urgent need to reform the federal criminal law governing excessive force. Congress needs to do away with the requirement of proof that officers have acted “willfully” when they use excessive force."
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