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NYPD judge recommends firing officer in Eric Garner death

By MICHAEL R. SISAK Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — An administrative judge on Friday recommended firing the New York City police officer accused of using a chokehold in the 2014 death of an unarmed black man whose dying pleas of "I can't breathe" became a rallying cry against alleged police brutality.

The city's police commissioner will make a final decision later this month on whether to fire Officer Daniel Pantaleo over his role in Eric Garner's death. The New York Police Department suspended Pantaleo from duty shortly after the judge's decision became public.

Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed the judge's report as "a step toward justice and accountability," while the officer's lawyer and a union leader said it penalized an officer for properly doing his job.

Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, said the judge's report brought her "some relief" but was overdue and fell short of true accountability.

"It's past time for Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD to end their obstruction, stop spreading misleading talking points and finally take action for my son," she said in a statement.

Garner's death came at a time of a growing public outcry over police killings of unarmed black men that sparked the national Black Lives Matter movement. Just weeks later, protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

When a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, 33, on state charges in December 2014, demonstrations flared in New York and several other cities.

The judge's findings were provided to Pantaleo's lawyer and the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the watchdog agency that acted as a prosecutor at his department trial last spring.

Under department rules, Pantaleo's lawyer will have about two weeks to respond before Police Commissioner James O'Neill makes his decision.

The attorney, Stuart London, said Pantaleo was disappointed in the administrative judge's recommendation but remains "cautiously optimistic" he ultimately won't be dismissed.

London and Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch urged O'Neill to stand up for Pantaleo, saying he'd done nothing wrong and firing him would leave officers feeling they can do their jobs without losing them.

"We're calling on Commissioner O'Neill to save the New York Police Department. Allow us to be effective again," Lynch said.

Department spokesman Phillip Walzak said Pantaleo's suspension was standard in disciplinary cases in which termination is recommended. He wouldn't comment further.

The administrative judge, Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado, had been tasked with deciding whether Pantaleo used a chokehold — banned by police department policy — to take Garner to the ground during a confrontation on a Staten Island street.

Pantaleo's lawyers argued he used an approved "seat belt" technique to subdue Garner, who refused to be handcuffed after officers accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes.

Pantaleo initially tried to use two approved restraint tactics on Garner, much larger at 6-foot-2 (188 centimeters) and about 400 pounds  (180 kilograms), but ended up wrapping his arm around Garner's neck for about seven seconds as they struggled against a glass storefront window and fell to the sidewalk.

A bystander's video showed Garner crying out, "I can't breathe," at least 11 times before he fell unconscious. The medical examiner's office said a chokehold contributed to Garner's death.

The details of Maldonado's report were not disclosed, but Civilian Complaint Review Board Chairman Fred Davie said the judge's recommendation confirms what the agency had argued at the trial: that Pantaleo's use of a chokehold caused Garner's death.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, appearing with two of Garner's children, called on the police commissioner "immediately and unequivocally" to accept the recommendation.

He added: "This is not justice for the Garner family. Justice for the Garner family would have been a federal proceeding or a criminal proceeding in the local courts."

Last month, federal prosecutors announced they would not bring criminal charges against Pantaleo following a five-year civil rights investigation.

The officer was stripped of his gun and put on desk duty after the death but continued to draw a salary, with his pay peaking at more than $120,000 in 2017, according to city records.

Garner's death has dogged de Blasio, a Democrat, since it happened in his first year in office.

His initial statements after the death were critical of the officers involved, and he talked publicly about having had to warn his own son, who is black, to be careful during any encounters with police. Then, as protests flared, a disturbed man angry about the Garner and Brown cases ambushed and killed two New York City police officers as they sat in their cruiser.

Lynch, of the police union, said at the time that the mayor had "blood on his hands" over the killings. Police turned their backs on de Blasio at the officers' funerals.

De Blasio, now running for the Democratic nomination for president, also wound up infuriating police reform advocates because of the department's years-long wait to begin disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo. The city said it wanted to avoid interfering in the federal civil rights investigation.

Chants of "Fire Pantaleo" interrupted de Blasio at Wednesday's Democratic presidential debate in Detroit. Protesters briefly interrupted de Blasio's news conference Friday chanting the same thing.

Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

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