The Department of Justice has reinitiated the long-stalled federal probe into the 2014 death of Eric Garner, one of many deadly encounters between unarmed black men and the police to make headlines that year. After discovering Garner selling untaxed cigarettes on a Staten Island street, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold, a technique is prohibited by the NYPD. Cops then pinned the man to the ground, where he cried out “I can't breathe” eleven times as officers continued to compress his chest. Garner's death was ruled a homicide by a medical examiner.
An investigation was launched, but in December of that year, a New York grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo. The Justice Department launched their own investigation into whether Garner's civil rights were violated during the incident, but the investigation was stalled by New York-based FBI officials and federal prosecutors, who both opposed bringing charges against the police. Now, these agents and prosecutors have reportedly been replaced with other officials who are not from New York.
In order to bring civil rights charges against the officers involved, the DOJ would have to prove that the cops intentionally violated Garner's rights. Pantaleo argued that he did not mean to put Garner in a chokehold, but instead intended to put his arm under Garner's arm. New York prosecutors and FBI agents have argued that the bystander video of the scene supported the cop's story, but prosecutors based in Washington, DC argued that the same video shows evidence of willful wrongdoing.
The shake-up in the personnel prosecuting the case may mean that the investigation will finally proceed, but investigations into killings by police rarely result in formal charges. In the past two years, the DOJ has launched major investigations into police-involved fatalities in Ferguson, Minneapolis, North Charleston, and Cleveland. In only one of these cases were federal charges brought against a cop, while all the other investigations were closed without any charges being filed.