More than two years after the death of Eric Garner helped mobilize the Black Lives Matter movement, the Department of Justice has reportedly assumed full control of the civil rights investigation into his death, after local officials appeared unwilling to pursue charges against the New York Police Department officer who killed him.
According to five federal officials who spoke with the New York Times, the Brooklyn-based federal prosecutors assigned to the case are no longer involved, and the local FBI agents helping with the investigation have been replaced with counterparts based outside of New York City. Both the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment on the Times‘ report.
According to the Times, this unusual reshuffling comes as the DOJ considers whether to bring federal civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island police officer seen on tape placing Garner in a fatal chokehold. The local officials previously working on the investigation were apparently against pressing charges.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘replaced’ to describe what happened,” a source familiar with the investigation explained to the New York Daily News. “You could say they didn’t want to go forward.”
Nevertheless, the move has reignited the long-stalled investigation, and once again put a spotlight on the 2014 encounter in which a stop for selling untaxed cigarettes resulted in Garner’s killing. Video of Garner’s arrest, and his final words of “I can’t breathe,” fueled the civil rights protests that began earlier that year in Ferguson, MO, following the death of Michael Brown—another black man killed by a white police officer.
Despite waves of condemnation for Garner’s death, a state grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in December 2014. As the Times points out, the onus now falls on the DOJ to convince a federal grand jury that Officer Pantaleo deliberately violated Garner’s civil rights during their struggle—an assessment the team of local FBI agents and prosecutors seemed to reject.
According to CNN, that difference of opinion between the DOJ and local authorities was responsible for preventing the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from announcing charges against Pantaleo this past spring. Pantaleo’s attorney agreed at the time with those investigators who seemed unwilling to recommend federal charges, telling CNN:
I’ve never thought any federally protected constitutional right was ever violated. This was a simple street encounter with no specific intent to ever violate his civil rights. It is very frustrating for my client to have this cloud still remain.
Speaking with the Daily News, another person familiar with the case predicted that if a federal indictment is, in fact, brought against Pantaleo, the announcement will likely be made before President Obama leaves office.