WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today blasted U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s decision to overrule career civil rights prosecutors and not bring federal civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City Policy Department (NYPD) officer who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold, resulting in his death. Barr’s decision is part of a larger pattern of the Attorney General abdicating his responsibility to uphold the rule of law and using his office as a political tool, demonstrated most recently by his claim – in stark contrast to the Supreme Court’s ruling – that there was a legal pathway to putting a question about citizenship on the 2020 census.
According to multiple news reports, Barr overruled the recommendation of career attorneys at the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, who specialize in investigating excessive use-of-force cases. In a letter sent today to Barr, on the five-year anniversary of Garner’s death, Booker asked the Attorney General to explain his reasoning for the decision.
“It’s difficult to put into words how deeply alarming it is that a NYPD officer used a violent and prohibited practice in arresting a man who was thought to be selling untaxed cigarettes,” Booker said in the letter. “That such a minor violation resulted in that man’s death should keep all of us up at night.”
“This is yet another disappointing sign that our criminal justice system is tragically broken. It’s why many people – particularly people of color – feel as if the system is stacked against them without hope of accountability, even when a violent and unnecessary homicide is captured on video, for all the world to see,” Senator Booker wrote.
The full letter is available here and below:
July 17, 2019
The Honorable William Barr
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530
Dear Attorney General Barr:
I am writing to you regarding recent news reports that state that you overruled career prosecutors in the Civil Rights Division and decided against bringing civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City Policy Department (NYPD) officer who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold and suffocated him to death. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), I am requesting you provide my office with a detailed explanation supporting your disturbing decision.
Today marks five years since the death of Mr. Garner. On July 17, 2014 Mr. Garner was confronted by NYPD officers for selling untaxed cigarettes. When officers tried to arrest him, Mr. Garner struggled and was placed in a chokehold by Officer Pantaleo—a practice that is banned by the department. The confrontation was caught on camera in horrific and gut-wrenching detail. Mr. Garner, physically restrained by no less than four officers, can be heard saying in the video “I can’t breathe!” multiple times before collapsing to the ground. Eventually, Mr. Garner died and the city’s medical examiner, as well as an expert forensic pathologist, ruled the death a homicide by chokehold and chest compression.
Mr. Garner’s death rightfully sparked enormous outrage across the country. It’s difficult to put into words how deeply alarming it is that a NYPD officer used a violent and prohibited practice in arresting a man who was thought to be selling untaxed cigarettes. That such a minor violation resulted in that man’s death should keep all of us up at night, especially in a nation that professes sacred devotion to equality and freedom for all.
After his death, highly-trained career civil rights prosecutors at the Civil Rights Division at DOJ, who are specialized in investigating excessive use-of-force cases, evaluated the evidence and made the recommendation that charges be brought against Officer Pantaleo. Despite the recommendation from these experts, you sided against them by opting not to bring charges.
Our nation’s criminal justice system is founded on the principle etched in stone above the U.S. Supreme Court: Equal Justice Under Law. No man is above the law, not even law enforcement officers. To Mr. Garner’s family and loved ones, however, those words must ring hallow. This is yet another disappointing sign that our criminal justice system is tragically broken – it’s why many people – particularly people of color – feel as if the system is stacked against them, without hope of accountability, even when a violent and unnecessary homicide is captured on video, for all the world to see.
Given the deeply troubling details involving Mr. Garner’s death, I am requesting you provide me and my Senator Judiciary Committee colleagues the following information. The public deserves to know how you reached such a stunning conclusion.
1. Please provide the specific grounds on which you disagreed with the recommendation of the specialized prosecutors in the Civil Rights Division in the investigation of Mr. Pantaleo.
2. Please provide the number of instances in which the Attorney General overruled the recommendations of career specialized prosecutors in the Civil Rights Division Criminal Section.
3. Please provide the number of instances in which the Attorney General overruled the recommendations of career prosecutors in other divisions at DOJ.
I look forward to your prompt attention to this matter.
Cory A. Booker
United States Senator