There may finally be some justice in the case of Eric Garner — a 44-year-old unarmed man who died in July 2014 after a New York police officer placed him in an illegal chokehold.
The Department of Justice's Civil Rights division commissioned a grand jury to determine if NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo violated Garner's civil rights. This latest development comes nearly two years after a New York medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused by "the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police."
Convening a federal grand jury is a significant step in the case — especially since a state grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in November 2014. Former Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department's investigation of Garner’s death in December 2014.
"Our prosecutors will conduct an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation," Holder said in a statement at the time.
It is unclear if Pantaleo — whose still doing desk work for the NYPD — will testify, but federal prosecutors can use his previous testimony to the Staten Island grand jury. In that case, Pantaleo claimed that he didn’t mean to harm Garner, according to the officer’s attorney Stuart London.
"He wanted to get across to the grand jury that it was never his intention to injure or harm anyone," London told the New York Times about the testimony. "He was really just describing how he was attempting to arrest someone."
The city of New York settled with Garner's family for $5.9 million last July, so the federal grand jury investigation is a surprise to many, including his widow, Esaw.
"I appreciate the news, but no comment," she said when the New York Daily News informed her of the grand jury proceedings.
Similarly, activist Al Sharpton said, "We had no idea a grand jury was investigating."
However, Sharpton — who led several rallies to protest Garner's death — said this is a step in the right direction.
"This is what we called for over the last year and a half, including the big rally we had on the one-year anniversary of Garner’s death in front of Eastern District Court," Sharpton told the Daily News. "We don't know what the outcome will be, but it does show they are moving forward. Hopefully justice will be served."
However, there is some cynicism about the federal civil rights case. The Department of Justice declined to prosecute the killers of unarmed teens Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown — though the latter case led to mandated reforms in Ferguson, Missouri’s police department.
The NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau conducted an independent investigation into the officers present at the scene of Garner’s death. The department disciplined Sergeant Kizzy Adonis for "failure to supervise," which is an internal misconduct charge. Adonis was stripped of her gun and badge and removed from street parole, according to the New York Times.
"All lives must be valued," Holder said in his 2014 statement announcing the federal probe into Garner's death. "Mr. Garner's death is one of several recent incidents across the country that have tested the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and protect. This is not a New York issue or a Ferguson issue alone."
Holding officers accountable may not ease the tension between communities of color and the police, but it can begin establishing some sense of accountability.