NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Police Department gave an ultimatum to the U.S. Department of Justice on Monday, saying it would proceed with disciplinary proceedings against the officers involved in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, absent action by federal prosecutors.
In a letter sent a day before the fourth anniversary of Garner’s killing on a city sidewalk by police trying to arrest him for peddling untaxed cigarettes, the police department decried the pace of the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation.
Cellphone video footage of Garner repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe!” to the officer whose arm is around his neck helped focus national attention on police killings of unarmed black men and fueled the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement.
“Understandably, members of the public in general and the Garner family in particular have grown impatient with the fact that NYPD has not proceeded with our disciplinary proceedings and they have difficulty comprehending a decision to defer to a federal criminal investigation that seems to have no end in sight,” Lawrence Byrne, the deputy police commissioner for legal matters, wrote in the letter.
The Justice Department has made “ongoing requests” to hold off on disciplinary proceedings while the federal investigation continues, Byrne wrote.
The police department plans to stop honoring those requests and bring proceedings against officers involved in Garner’s death on Sept. 1 if there has been no federal prosecution decision announced by then, Byrne wrote.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, said on Monday that the city should fire Daniel Pantaleo and other officers involved in her son’s death and the Justice Department should prosecute them.
“We want it to be done swiftly, we don’t want politics to play a part in this, we just want justice for my son,” she told reporters at a news conference as she stood alongside civil rights activist the Reverend Al Sharpton.
Pantaleo, the officer who held his arm around Garner’s neck after Garner argued with police, and Kizzy Adonis, a sergeant who was at the scene, are the officers facing discipline, police spokesman Lieutenant John Grimpel said. The New York Police Department has long banned its officers from using chokeholds as a restraint.
The police department’s internal inquiry was completed in 2015, but the findings have not been made public while an internal departmental trial against Pantaleo and Adonis has been on hold.
In December 2014, a New York City grand jury voted against charging Pantaleo in Garner’s death, sparking further protests. He has been assigned to desk duty since Garner’s death.
The police officer’s union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said it agreed with the NYPD that federal investigators should make a decision soon.
“However, that should not trigger a race by the NYPD to reach a pre-determined outcome in its own disciplinary processes,” Patrick Lynch, the union’s president, said in a statement, saying he expected Pantaleo to be vindicated.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Leslie Adler