Federal civil rights prosecutors have recommended charging a New York police officer in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, but it’s unclear if top Justice Department officials will go ahead with the recommendation.
Prosecutors recently made the recommendation to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Video shot by a bystander shows 43-year-old Garner, after being stopped by officers for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, refusing to be handcuffed. Officer Daniel Pantaleo responds by putting him in an apparent chokehold. Garner, who had asthma, is heard gasping, “I can’t breathe.”
Civil rights prosecutors in the Obama administration wanted to charge Pantaleo but faced resistance from federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, who were not sure there was enough evidence. A state grand jury refused to indict Pantaleo in 2014.
Civil rights activists have been closely watching how Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a vocal supporter of local law enforcement, will handle the racially charged case. Because of its high-profile nature, Rosenstein must recommend whether to allow prosecutors to move forward.
Sessions may also weigh in, though he has long said that he won’t pursue the kinds of wide-ranging federal investigations of entire police departments that were hallmarks of the Obama administration. He said that the approach diminishes officer morale and can lead to spikes in crime.
Bringing civil rights charges against police officers is rare and challenging in any administration because prosecutors must reach a difficult standard of proof. It requires them to establish that an officer not only acted with excessive force but also willfully violated someone’s constitutional rights. Even some career prosecutors familiar with the details of the Garner case acknowledge it would be challenging to secure a conviction, a federal law enforcement official said.
Pantaleo’s attorney, Stuart London, said he has not been contacted by Justice Department officials in the last few months. He reiterated that his client maintains he did not violate Garner’s rights.
“It has always and continues to be a simple street encounter,” London said.