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Five years after Eric Garner died in police custody and ignited a national outcry, a police administrative judge recommended on Friday that the officer who placed him in a chokehold during the botched arrest should be fired, according to two people with knowledge of the decision.
The finding sets in motion the final stage of a long legal and political battle over the fate of the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who has become for many critics of the New York Police Department an emblem of what they see as overly aggressive policing in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Officer Pantaleo’s fate has been a political minefield for both Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill — who now must decide whether to fire him and incur the wrath of police unions — and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who for years has expressed solidarity with the Garner family while avoiding saying whether Officer Pantaleo should remain on the force.
Mr. Garner’s death helped spur a wave of protests nationwide against police brutality that led to changes in policy in many cities, and his last words — “I can’t breathe” — became a battle cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
For years, Officer Pantaleo’s unresolved status has loomed over Mr. de Blasio’s administration, and has continued to dog him as he embarks on a run for president as a progressive Democrat.
He was heckled at a national debate on Wednesday night by protesters shouting “Fire Pantaleo,” and vowed that Mr. Garner’s family would soon receive justice.
On Friday, Mr. de Blasio said the Garner family had waited too long for justice from federal and state law enforcement authorities and said the departmental trial and the judge’s decision would bring them “a sense of closure and peace.” But he again declined to say whether he believed Officer Pantaleo should be fired.
“Today, for the first time in these long five years, the system of justice is working,” Mr. de Blasio said. He continued, “I want to remind everyone, this is an ongoing legal matter, so there’s very little I can add.”
The Garner family called on Mr. O’Neill to dismiss the officer immediately. “This has been a long battle,” Mr. Garner’s daughter, Emerald Snipes Garner, said at a news conference in Manhattan with the Rev. Al Sharpton. “And finally, somebody has said that there’s some information that this cop has done something wrong.”
But the president of the Police Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, warned that the commissioner and the mayor would “lose the department” if the decision was made to terminate Officer Pantaleo, whom Mr. Lynch has cast as a scapegoat.
A Police Department spokesman said Mr. O’Neill had yet to receive a copy of the judge’s report and would not make a decision until later this month, after lawyers for both sides have a chance to comment on the conclusions. Mr. O’Neill did suspend Officer Pantaleo on Friday.
“All of New York City understandably seeks closure to this difficult chapter in our city’s history,” the spokesman, Phillip Walzak, said. “Premature statements or judgments before the process is complete however cannot and will not be made.”
[The Pantaleo case has shadowed Mr. de Blasio on the presidential campaign trail.]
Whether Officer Pantaleo will be dismissed and lose his pension is up to Mr. O’Neill, who under state law and a labor contract has the final say over the disciplining of officers. Prosecutors and the defense typically have up to two weeks to respond to the findings of the judge, Rosemarie Maldonado, a deputy police commissioner who oversees disciplinary hearings.
Mr. O’Neill could decide to uphold, modify or reverse her findings. The officer could also resign ahead of a decision.
Officer Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, said the judge had bowed to outside political pressure in her decision and had ignored the evidence. He said Officer Pantaleo wanted to continue fighting for his job. “This case was won in that courtroom,” Mr. London said. He added that, “Politics trumped, unfortunately, the rule of law.”
The 47-page decision, dated Friday, found Officer Pantaleo had used excessive force and was reckless when he applied a chokehold, one person familiar with the decision said. Ms. Maldonado also determined that the officer was aware of the risk of using a chokehold and knew he was not supposed to use it, the person said.
Still, the judge cleared Officer Pantaleo of one charge against him: She found that he had not intentionally restricted Mr. Garner’s breathing.
Fred Davie, the chairman of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that acted as prosecutors at a disciplinary hearing, said the judge had vindicated the board’s long-held position that Officer Pantaleo had caused Mr. Garner’s death. “Commissioner O’Neill must uphold this verdict and dismiss Pantaleo from the department,” Mr. Davie said in a statement.
The chokehold was captured in bystanders’ videos of Mr. Garner’s July 17 arrest published by The New York Daily News.
One shows Officer Pantaleo’s arms gripping Mr. Garner’s upper body and quickly slipping up to his neck as the two stumbled to the ground. Mr. Garner repeated “I can’t breathe” 11 times as officers pressed him onto the sidewalk.
Both a grand jury on Staten Island and the Department of Justice had previously declined to bring criminal charges against Officer Pantaleo in connection with Mr. Garner’s death. Federal prosecutors determined that Officer Pantaleo had used a chokehold, but they could not agree on whether they could prove it was intentional.
On Friday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic who is running for president, called for the Justice Department’s Inspector General to examine that decision. “We need answers about the government’s failure to seek justice in this disturbing case,” she said in a statement.
Mr. Garner’s family and their supporters said on Friday they remain convinced Officer Pantaleo should have faced criminal charges in state or federal court, and even his dismissal would not satisfy them. “Make no mistake about it, this is not justice for the Garner family,” Mr. Sharpton said.
Mr. Garner’s mother, Gwenn Carr, said Friday all the officers involved in the arrest should also be held accountable for her son’s death. She called on the commissioner to fire Officer Pantaleo’s partner, Justin D’Amico, and Lt. Christopher Bannon, who supervised the two officers and said in text messages that Mr. Garner’s death was “not a big deal.”
In the last two weeks, Mr. Garner’s relatives, backed by many of the city’s elected officials, have threatened major protests if the de Blasio administration does not fire Officer Pantaleo. But the mayor has not pushed the police commissioner to do so, saying that state law and city rules prevent him from firing the officer or overriding a commissioner’s decision.
Though Mr. de Blasio is not allowed to directly fire a police officer, he can influence the decision because the police commissioner serves at his pleasure. Mr. de Blasio has said he cannot publicly voice an opinion on Officer Pantaleo’s status because it could be seen as an attempt to influence the department’s decision, exposing the city to a lawsuit.
Mr. Lynch, the union president, said the mayor had exerted that influence with his remarks on the debate stage.
“We have a mayor who predetermined the outcome,” he said. “He said the family will get justice. Of course that family’s justice is finding a police officer guilty and firing them.”
The videos of the chokehold were key pieces of evidence at Officer Pantaleo’s disciplinary trial. Police union lawyers argued that he had used an authorized takedown tactic to subdue Mr. Garner, who they said was resisting a lawful arrest. Supervisors had ordered Officer Pantaleo and his partner, Justin Damico, to arrest Mr. Garner for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, which is illegal in New York.
The pair were among at least 12 officers who failed to render aid to Mr. Garner as he was being held on the ground or later omitted the use of force from official reports, Mr. Garner’s family has said.
Prosecutors from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city agency that investigates police misconduct accusations, presented evidence that Officer Pantaleo performed a takedown technique that he had not been trained to use. When it went wrong, instead of letting go, he clasped his hands to secure his grip around Mr. Garner’s neck, they said.
The prosecutors, Suzanne O’Hare and Jonathan Fogel, said that Mr. Garner was trying to talk the officers out of arresting him, just as he had done two weeks earlier with Officer Damico.
Mr. Davie said the evidence prosecutors presented at the departmental trial, which took place at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan, “was more than sufficient to prove Pantaleo unfit to serve.”
Jeff Mays and Edgar Sandoval contributed reporting.