Justice Department Overhauls Team in Eric Garner Police Killing Case

Garner's death galvanized racial justice protests around the country. (Photo: Christian Matts/flickr/cc)

Justice Department Overhauls Team in Eric Garner Police Killing Case

DOJ replaces several key agents, potentially giving jump-start to 'long-stalled case' and paving way for criminal charges

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has replaced the New York team investigating the 2014 police killing of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old black man whose arrest and deadly chokehold were captured on video--a move that could "jump-start the long-stalled case and put the government back on track to seek criminal charges," the New York Timesreports.

FBI agents investigating whether Garner's civil rights were violated when New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Daniel Pantaleo locked his elbow around Garner's throat and dragged him to the ground were replaced by other agents from outside the state, the Times reports, citing anonymous officials. And federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have also been taken off the case.

The investigation had stalled for years due to internal conflict, as lawyers with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department called for charges to be filed against the officers involved while FBI agents opposed doing so.

Garner's death on July 17, 2014, which was quickly followed by the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, galvanized racial justice protests around the country. The video of his violent arrest, during which he yelled, "I can't breathe!" at least 11 times, helped bring nationwide attention to his case, and his words became a rallying cry for activists.

But justice has been elusive. In December 2014, a grand jury refused to indict Pantaleo, despite the fact that chokeholds have long been outlawed in the NYPD patrol guide and that the city medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide. Pantaleo has been on desk duty since the killing.

Recent Justice Department investigations have confirmed that police departments around the country engage in systemic constitutional violations. Few cases of police brutality and extrajudicial killings have led to convictions, despite the visibility of such issues increasing through the work of civil and human rights organizations.

Additionally, the Times reports:

The changes by federal officials, while reigniting the investigation, also signal a difficult road ahead. Prosecuting police officers is difficult even when investigators agree about the strength of the case. In the Garner case, the Justice Department is moving forward knowing that a team of agents and prosecutors believes the case should not be brought. If it goes to trial, defense lawyers would probably try to exploit that division and use it to sow doubt. They could even try to call F.B.I. agents who were taken off the case as defense witnesses, officials said.

Garner's widow, Esaw Garner, told the New York Daily News that she was cautiously pleased with the development, stating, "I'm hoping they follow through with it and do what they need to do to put this officer away. He needs to suffer the consequences of his actions."

She added that a federal indictment against Pantaleo could have a far-reaching impact on policing tactics in communities of color. "If they would just put away one--not even all of them, just one--then the other ones would think about what they're doing before they do it," she said.

On Twitter, prominent Black Lives Matter activist Brittany Packnett responded to the news writing, "People said we were wasting our time engaging the DOJ and [White House]. This is why we did, anyway. Inside. Outside. Always."

Reverend Al Sharpton added to the Daily News, "We are cautiously optimistic because this could mean that a new team will go on and leave no stone unturned and protect the civil rights of Eric Garner. Eric Garner had the civil right not to be choked to death against departmental guidelines."

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