The Justice Department has overhauled the New York-based team probing the death of Eric Garner over a difference in opinion between officials in the city and in Washington on whether civil rights charges should be brought on the federal level, officials familiar with the case told The New York Times.
Garner, 43, died on July 17, 2014 after being put in a chokehold on a Staten Island street corner by an NYPD officer after he was stopped for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. The chokehold was captured on video, which showed him calling out "I can't breathe" as he was held down. Garner's dying words became a rallying cry at protests nationwide over police killings of black men amid a nationwide debate over police use of force.
Federal authorities have been investigating whether there's evidence to warrant charges that the officers who confronted Garner deliberately violated his civil rights. But, according to the Times, the investigation has been slowed by disagreement between federal officials in New York and Washington. According to the Times, those investigating the case in New York recommended against bringing federal civil rights charges. Officials in Washington, however, thought there was sufficient evidence to do so.
In a rare shake-up, the Justice Department moved to switch out the investigative team in recent weeks, according to the Times, moving federal prosecutors in Brooklyn off the case and bringing in FBI agents from outside New York to take a fresh look at the evidence.
To bring charges in the Garner case, prosecutors would have to convince a federal grand jury that a crime occurred, according to the Times. That poses additional challenges in the wake of a New York grand jury's 2014 decision not to indict Pantaleo, who remains on desk duty, stripped of his gun and badge, while police officials await the results of the federal probe.
The city medical examiner found the chokehold by Pantaleo contributed to Garner's death. Chokeholds are banned under NYPD policy, but Pantaleo's lawyer said the officer had used a permissible takedown maneuver known as a seatbelt. Pantaleo's attorney has maintained his client didn't violate Garner's civil rights and that he was performing his duties, which he was trained to do.
Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, called the investigative shake-up "highly unusual and deeply troubling."
"Two separate investigative teams have already spent more than two years reviewing the evidence in this case, without any action. Now, it appears that they are taking a third bite at the apple in an effort to reach a predetermined outcome," Lynch said in a statement. "It is time to end this fishing expedition and let Police Officer Pantaleo move forward.”
Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department responded to the Times' request for comment.
Over the summer, on the second anniversary of Garner's death, Garner's sister, Ellisha Garner, said the years-long wait for the Justice Department to conclude its probe has been trying on the family, but that they'd wait as long as it takes to get justice.
Garner's family reached a $5.9 million settlement with the city last year, but relatives said it was not a victory, adding they would keep pushing for federal charges.
According to the Times, any movement in the federal case is likely months away.