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What’s at stake in hearing for NYPD officer who caused Eric Garner’s death

Eric Garner’s 2014 death at the hands of New York City police sparked national outrage and helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. The police officer at the center of the case is now facing an administrative hearing, although it is not expected to call for significant penalties. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to Jim Dwyer of The New York Times, who has been following the story and the hearing.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    "I can't breathe." Those were some of the last words Eric Garner spoke before his death while being arrested by New York City police. They have sparked national outrage and helped to fuel the Black Lives Matter movement.

    The police officer at the center of the case is now facing an administrative hearing.

    As Amna Nawaz reports, the outcome is not expected to call for significant penalties.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, that's right.

    Well, in July 2014, police detained Eric Garner on suspicion of selling untaxed single cigarettes on the street. During that encounter, officer Daniel Pantaleo is accused of using an unauthorized chokehold. The moment was captured on cell phone video.

    Take a look.

  • Eric Garner:

    Don't touch me. Don't touch me.

    I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Eric Garner, who had asthma, died as a result of that encounter.

    In a column earlier this week, Jim Dwyer of The New York Times reports, many in the neighborhood where Garner died believe his death won't lead to real change or lasting consequences with the police. He's been following the ongoing hearing, and he joins me now.

    Jim Dwyer, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Very briefly, if you can, just lay out for us, what is it that both sides are arguing in this hearing?

  • Jim Dwyer:

    Well, it's an administrative hearing in the police department's own trial room.

    So they conduct disciplinary hearings there. And Officer Pantaleo, who was the arresting officer, and the sergeant who oversaw him, are charged, in Pantaleo's case, with using a chokehold recklessly and causing his death, Eric Garner's death, as a result of that. And the sergeant is accused of failing to oversee him.

    The defense is saying Eric Garner was a very sick man. He had asthma, hypertension, weighed almost 400 pounds, and his death was the result of essentially incidental contact that triggered this very ill man's fatal asthma attack.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, it's an administrative hearing. It's not a criminal proceeding. What is the most serious consequence that could come for the officer, Officer Pantaleo, as a result of this?

  • Jim Dwyer:

    Well, it's what the police department can do to him, which is fire him.

    And, you know, the penalty — I think that's the top penalty. They may also cause him, as part of that penalty, to forfeit any accumulated vacation or sick time that he has. Or it can go all the way down to a few days' suspension or a loss of vacation time, or, if he's not found guilty, he will go back to work.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So there could be no consequence as a result of this; is that right?

  • Jim Dwyer:

    Well, if he's not found guilty, sure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the hearing, we should note, it's first time that the public has really been able to hear any key parts or accounts around Mr. Garner's death and the process that followed it.

    Over the last five days, what new things have we learned from the hearing?

  • Jim Dwyer:

    A couple things.

    One is that the city medical examiner found out the injuries on Mr. Garner's neck, on the tissue inside of it, showed that there had been a chokehold. There were injuries to four layers, according to the medical examiner. And they showed some photographs of that.

    And it was this that triggered Garner's asthma attack that caused his death. That was one thing that came out.

    Another thing that came out just today was very interesting, that, when Mr. Garner was in the ambulance, and either dead or very near death, the officer's partner took it on himself to write up the arrest warrant charging Mr. Garner with the felony, sale, and distribution of untaxed,, unlicensed cigarettes.

    Now, he claimed that Garner had 10,000 cigarettes. In fact, Garner, as the officer admitted today, only had five packs of cigarettes with him. So, there was an effort, apparently, from this testimony, to dress up the story, to make Garner seem to have been doing something more serious than selling a few individual cigarettes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There was also a text message exchange that was revealed in which one of the lower-ranking officers was communicating with a higher supervisor, and that supervisor wrote back to him to say, not a big deal, when referring to Eric Garner potentially dying as a result of that encounter.

    How did that go over in the hearing?

  • Jim Dwyer:

    Well, people were shocked when — particularly the Garner family, members and friends who were there.

    And it was a startling, startling statement. The officer, the lieutenant, through his representatives, his union representatives, said that he was merely trying the comfort his subordinates who were upset about this.

    But, in a way, the lieutenant was actually right. It has not been a big deal. We're five years on. There has been no criminal charges brought against anyone involved in this terrible event. There was a state grand jury in Staten Island. They voted not to charge anyone.

    The federal grand jury sitting in Brooklyn, with civil rights prosecutors from Washington involved, they have not yet released anything. But, at this point, it's quite unlikely, as the statute of limitations runs out on the fifth anniversary of the death, which — I'm sorry — of the death, July 17 of this summer.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jim, you have been talking to people in that neighborhood five years on now.

    This one video, this one encounter sparked a national movement. It sparked national attention to an issue that had been long going on in terms of law enforcement and how they can sometimes mistreat people in poor and minority neighborhoods.

    The Black Lives Matter movement was sparked as a result of this. What do you think the impact will be if there is no consequence as a result of this hearing?

  • Jim Dwyer:

    I think people were already very upset when it came out that the local grand jury, the state grand jury, wasn't going to charge him.

    And, actually, there were significant protests in the streets of New York when that happened, about two years ago or so. And I expect that, if the board here, the trial board decides that anyone was guilty or not guilty, you know, the reaction is going to be almost perhaps a shrug of the shoulders, because, at this point, really…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You're saying this is something people don't expect much of at all, something we will have to follow.

    The trial has been delayed. It will pick up again soon.

    But Jim Dwyer of The New York Times, we will have to leave it there. Thank you very much for your time.

  • Jim Dwyer:

    Sure thing.

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