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Justice Department will not charge New York City police involved in death of Eric Garner

Key Points
  • The Department of Justice will not pursue charges against an officer involved in the killing of Eric Garner in 2014, NBC News confirmed Tuesday.
  • Attorney General William Barr made the final decision not to prosecute Pantaleo, a senior Justice Department official told NBC News.
  • The decision comes almost exactly five years after Garner died on Staten Island, New York, after New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo allegedly put him in a chokehold.
  • During his arrest, Garner repeatedly told Pantaleo that "I can't breathe," a statement that later became a rallying cry for activists.
Members of Black Lives Matter Greater NY and allies held a protest rally in Times Square on June 4, 2019 demanding justice for Eric Garner as Daniel Pantaleos trial resume.
Erik McGregor | LightRocket | Getty Images

The Department of Justice will not pursue charges against an officer involved in the killing of Eric Garner in 2014, NBC News confirmed Tuesday.

The decision comes almost exactly five years after Garner died on Staten Island, New York, after New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo allegedly put him in a chokehold, which is barred by police rules. Garner's death led to protests around the world and is one of the police-involved killings commonly cited by the Black Lives Matter movement.

During his arrest, Garner, who was asthmatic, said nearly a dozen times that "I can't breathe," a statement that later became a rallying cry for activists after video of the arrest circulated. Garner died as a result of a "lethal cascade" of events instigated by Pantaleo's maneuver, the doctor who performed Garner's autopsy later said.

Attorney General William Barr made the final decision not to prosecute Pantaleo, a senior Justice Department official told NBC News. That decision was based on the recommendation of Brooklyn prosecutors. Two DOJ officials told NBC News that attorneys in the department's Civil Rights Division believed charges could have been filed, however.

A state grand jury cleared Pantaleo in 2014. He could still face internal penalties. At a disciplinary hearing held last month in Manhattan, the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board argued that Pantaleo should be fired. Pantaleo's attorney said that Pantaleo had done nothing wrong, and disputed that the technique Pantaleo employed was a chokehold.

A medical examiner found in 2014 that Garner's death was a homicide. Police arrested him because they believed he was selling untaxed cigarettes. The city reached a $5.9 million settlement with Garner's family in 2015.

"We're here with heavy hearts because the DOJ has failed us," Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, said Tuesday, according to USA Today.  "Although we looked for better from them, five years ago my son said 'I can't breathe' 11 times and today we can't breathe because they have let us down."

In a statement, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Phillip Walzak said the Justice Department's decision "does not affect" the internal disciplinary case against Pantaleo.

"The Departmental disciplinary trial of Officer Pantaleo has concluded. [New York police Commissioner James O'Neill] is now awaiting the report and recommendation from the Deputy Commissioner of Trials, after which he will make the final determination on the matter. In order to ensure the integrity of the process, the NYPD will not comment further at this time," Walzak said.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president, criticized the Justice Department's decision.

"Years ago, we put our faith in the federal government to act. We won't make that mistake again," de Blasio said in a statement. "Moving forward, we will not wait for the federal government to commence our own disciplinary proceedings."

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.