Daniel Pantaleo — the former New York City police officer accused in the 2014 death of Eric Garner that ignited the Black Lives Matter movement — filed a wrongful termination lawsuit Wednesday, seeking reinstatement after he was fired from the department in August.
Pantaleo’s termination following an administrative trial was “arbitrary and capricious,” his attorney, Stuart London, told the New York Post. The former officer used a reasonable amount of force and did not mean to hurt Garner, the lawyer said.
Video of the confrontation between Garner, a 43-year-old black man, and the officers trying to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes in the city’s borough of Staten Island drew outrage and was viewed millions of times online.
Pantaleo, who is white, initiated what prosecutors described as a chokehold, which is banned under police policy, after Garner refused to be handcuffed. The defense argued Pantaleo used an approved “seat belt” maneuver and that Garner’s death related to his health issues.
The medical examiner later said Garner’s cause of death was asthma brought about by the chokehold. Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist, blasted the lawsuit, saying Pantaleo “had a fair administrative trial” that recommended his dismissal.
“Pantaleo’s decision to seek his reinstatement is not only disrespectful to the Police Commissioner and NYPD, but also the Garner family,” Sharpton said in a statement. “He has shown no contrition or acknowledgment of his violent actions that ultimately killed Eric Garner.”
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill announced Aug. 19 his decision to fire Pantaleo in the case that had spanned five years— a move that sparked immediate backlash from the department’s police union, which blasted the decision as caving to “anti-police extremists.”
Pantaleo had been suspended since Aug. 2, after a department disciplinary judge recommended his termination. NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado’s recommendation came after a July ruling by the U.S. Justice Department not to indict Pantaleo on federal civil rights charges.
The head of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which prosecuted the NYPD’s internal case, said the evidence presented at trial left the commissioner “no option but to dismiss Pantaleo,” providing “closure” to Garner’s family, the city and “a nation that long has had watchful eyes upon this case.”
Cops in New York City reportedly said Pantaleo’s firing lowered morale within the department as officers fear political retaliation for making arrests. Between Aug. 17, when Pantaleo was fired, and Aug. 25, arrests dropped by 27 percent compared to the same period in 2018, the New York Post reported.
Mayor Bill de Blasio — who at the time of Pantaleo’s firing was still in the 2020 Democratic presidential race — never said whether he believed Pantaleo should lose his job, but promised “justice” to Garner’s family. Questions about the handling of the case had dogged de Blasio during his campaign, with some protesters at a debate in Detroit chanting, “Fire Pantaleo.” Commissioner O’Neill told reporters Pantaleo’s dismissal was his own choice, and that de Blasio never forced his hand.
Fox News’ Travis Fedschun, Adam Shaw and The Associated Press contributed to this report.