New York Mayor, Police Department Lose Appeal to Block Probe Into Eric Garner's Death

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York Police Department (NYPD) have lost their appeal attempting to block an inquiry into the circumstances around the fatal arrest of Eric Garner.

In Thursday's ruling, the appeals court upheld the decision from a lower court that allowed Garner's family and others to use a provision of the City Charter to investigate violation or neglect of duty.

"We find that this is the rare case in which allegations of significant violations of duty, coupled with a serious lack of substantial investigation and public explanation, warrant a summary inquiry to bring transparency to a matter of profound public importance: the death of an unarmed civilian during the course of an arrest," the decision read. "Accordingly, we unanimously affirm the order granting the petition."

The petition to open a judicial investigation was brought forward by eight New York City taxpayers, including Garner's mother, Gwen Carr; his sister, Elisha Flagg Garner and Constance Malcolm, mother of Ramarley Graham, who was killed by NYPD officers in 2012.

Garner was killed on July 17, 2014 after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner into a prohibited chokehold while arresting him.

Garner was heard repeatedly telling officers that he could not breathe while being held face down on the sidewalk. He later lost consciousness and was pronounced dead at an area hospital an hour later.

Video footage of the incident gained national attention and sparked calls for police reform.

In a statement shared with Newsweek, a New York City Law Department spokesperson said the city is reviewing its options at this time.

"So much information about this incident has been made publicly available and there is no evidence that the Mayor or any other senior City official neglected their duties or violated the law," the spokesperson said. "We argued that the summary inquiry that the petitioners sought was outside the scope of this very narrow and rarely used type of proceeding. The Court acknowledged that summary inquiries should remain exceedingly rare, but concluded that this one is exceptional and should go forward."

Eric Garner Bill DeBlasio NYPD Appeal Blocked
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and the New York Police Department lost an appeal on Thursday seeking to block a judicial investigation into the circumstances of Eric Garner's death. People in New York City mark the five year anniversary of Garner's death on July 17, 2019, after he died in a confrontation with police. Spencer Platt/Getty

An investigation was approved by the lower court in four areas: the circumstances around Garner's arrest and death, the official paperwork of his arrest and death, how Garner's sealed arrest history and medical records were leaked to the media shortly after his death and the lack of medical care he received while lay on the sidewalk waiting for an ambulance.

DeBlasio and the NYPD had argued that the disciplinary trial of Pantaleo had already constituted a thorough investigation of the incident, but the court said there were other troubling aspects including "false filings and statements made in connection with the incident" that had not yet been investigated.

In December 2015, a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo—a decision that sparked public protests against police brutality. During a disciplinary hearing over the summer of 2019, an administrative judge recommended that the officer be terminated from the force.

More than five years after Garner's death, Pantaleo was fired on Aug. 19, 2019.

DeBlasio and the NYPD argued that Section 1109, the lesser-known provision, was not meant to investigate the conduct of low-level officers, but the court ruled that the broad language of the clause means that it applies to violation or neglect of duty by low-level officers as well.

Section 1109 applies to "any alleged violation or neglect of duty in relation to the property, government or affairs of the city."

The appeals court said that the impact Garner's death had on the topic of the use of force by police would allow for the judicial inquiry to move forward.

"His repeated last words – 'I can't breathe; – have become a rallying cry against excessive force by police," the ruling read. "Viewed in this context, the issues raised in the arrest and death of Garner and its aftermath are of the greatest significance."

Update 7/15/21- 2:37 pm. - This story was updated with comments from the New York City Law Department.