Eric Garner Died in a Police Chokehold. Why Has the Inquiry Taken So Long?

Eric Garner died on July 17, 2014, when a New York City police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, wrapped his arm around Mr. Garner’s neck and, along with other officers, wrestled him to the ground during an arrest after he was seen selling untaxed cigarettes on a Staten Island street.

Officer Pantaleo’s actions were captured on video and seen around the world, and calls for his indictment immediately followed. Many assumed he would be fired quickly.

Neither of those things happened.

On the criminal track, Officer Pantaleo, who is white, faced a Staten Island grand jury in 2014, but was not indicted. The decision sparked waves of protests in the early months of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Federal prosecutors, for their part, spent years weighing whether to bring charges against the officer. They failed to reach a decision during former President Barack Obama’s term. After President Trump took office, the stalemate remained.

Some wanted charges; others did not.

The delay has meant that Officer Pantaleo remains on the force. The New York Police Department had said it would not try to discipline him — the internal process can involve a public trial — until federal prosecutors made a decision.

But four years after Mr. Garner’s death, the Police Department said over the summer that it would no longer wait.

Now the arcane police disciplinary process can begin.

The prosecution will be handled by the Civilian Complaint Review Board. What’s that?

The Civilian Complaint Review Board is an independent city agency in charge of investigating complaints about police abuse and recommending discipline to the Police Department. Ultimately, the police commissioner decides an officer’s fate.

The board’s lawyers prosecute cases in which their investigators substantiate accusations of serious abuse, including improper use of force. The officer gets a trial, held at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan, before an administrative judge from the Police Department.

Officer Pantaleo, who is assigned to a desk job in Staten Island, is expected to face such a trial. No date has been set.

Does the board have a good case?

Despite the video footage of the fatal encounter, a Staten Island grand jury decided in 2014 that Officer Pantaleo did not commit a crime.

The standard for the review board is higher, but the board is not trying to prove a crime, just that Officer Pantaleo engaged in misconduct that should result in discipline, including firing.

The problem, as the review board explained it in a filing on Wednesday in State Supreme Court in Staten Island, is that many witnesses’ memories have faded.

To help correct that, the board asked the court for access to transcripts from the 2014 grand jury — documents that are usually kept secret.

Without access to that testimony, “the prosecutors will not be able to present the full facts, which could result in an unfair and unjust outcome,” Kerri S. Jamieson, assistant general counsel for the board, wrote in the filing.

What could be learned from the grand jury transcripts?

The board’s filing offered a window into its case, which could involve many of the witnesses who testified before the grand jury, including Officer Pantaleo.

Two of the witnesses — Felipe Velez, who saw the incident, and the city’s medical examiner, who determined the cause of Mr. Garner’s death — told the board’s prosecutors that they could not recall portions of their prior testimony.

“Trial witnesses have forgotten significant details that can only be recollected after reviewing the grand jury records,” the board argued in its papers. Such a review is common in a criminal prosecution, in which the prosecutor is the same in the grand jury proceedings and the trial.

But in this case, the board is trying to extract the records from another prosecutor, the Staten Island district attorney, who has resisted disclosing them. (The district attorney who put on the 2014 grand jury, Dan Donovan, became a congressman a few months later; he lost his seat on Tuesday.)

Didn’t the board already lose this argument?

Yes, but the board says things have changed. When it first tried to get the records in 2015, it was in the process of investigating the encounter. The judge, William E. Garnett, ruled against the request.

Now that the board is preparing for trial, its lawyers believe the situation is different — they are no longer investigating, but putting on a case — and are asking the same judge to reconsider.

But either way Justice Garnett rules, the information will probably not become public. Criminal justice reform groups and the city’s public advocate tried to pry them loose in 2015, only to be defeated in court. And the board is not arguing for that decision to be reversed, a likely disappointment to advocates.

“The C.C.R.B. is seeking the grand jury records solely for the purposes of its administrative prosecution,” the board wrote. “There will be no widespread disclosure.”

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