The police commander in charge at the time of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of NYPD officers in 2014 texted his subordinate that the death was “no big deal,” according to the New York Times.
The arrest took place in July 2014, when Garner was targeted for selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island, NY. Garner, who had asthma, was wrestled to the ground and held in a chokehold as he told officers he couldn’t breathe 11 times in a row. After his death was publicized, Garner’s case became a lighting rod for controversy around police killings of black people.
The officer who killed Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, is currently in facing termination for wrongful use of a chokehold and improper restriction of breathing. It was at a hearing at Police Department headquarters in Lower Manhattan that the new text messages emerged.
The messages revealed that on the day of Garner’s death, July 17th, 2014, police commander Lt. Christopher Bannon received a text message about the arrest. The officer told Bannon that Garner had been wrestled to the ground. “He’s most likely [dead on arrival],” the officer texted. “He has no pulse.”
“Not a big deal,” Bannon responded. “We were effecting a lawful arrest.”
The Times has the full text exchange:
At 4:11 p.m. Sergeant Saminath sent a text to Lieutenant Bannon telling him that the enforcement effort in Tompkinsville Park had taken a turn for the worse.
“Danny and Justin went to collar Eric Garner and he resisted. When they took him down, Eric went into cardiac arrest. He’s unconscious. Might be DOA,” Sergeant Saminath wrote.
“For the smokes?” Lieutenant Bannon responded.
“Yeah, they observed him selling,” Sergeant Saminath replied. “Then Danny tried to grab him. They both went down. They called the bus ASAP. He’s most likely DOA. He has no pulse.’’
“O.K., keep me posted. I’m still here,” Lieutenant Bannon wrote. Then he sent his next message, assuring Sergeant Saminath that it was not a “big deal.’’
The Times reports that there were gasps in the courtroom when the messages were read out.
In 2014, a Staten Island jury declined to indict Pantaleo for criminal charges in Garner’s death, provoking a series of protests in New York City. A federal civil rights inquiry has been in motion since then, but no charges have been filed. The statute of limitations on Garner’s death will expire this July, on the fifth anniversary of the arrest.
In court, Bannon tried to explain the text.
“My reasoning,’’ he said, “was not to be malicious. It’s to make sure the officer knew he was put in a bad situation.”
“Would you agree that Eric Garner was put in a bad situation?” prosecutor Suzanne O’Hare responded.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Bannon said, after a pause.
Of course, to Garner’s friends and family, his death was more than a “big deal.”
“No big deal?’’ Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, told reporters outside the Police Department headquarters. “If one of his loved ones was on the ground dead and someone came up to him and said, ‘It’s no big deal,’ how would you feel about it?”
According to the Times, too much time has elapsed for Bannon to be charged for anything related to the texts.
The hearings also touched on so-called “quality-of-life” enforcement by officers, which generally means tackling low-level crimes like public urination or open container violations. This kind of enforcement, also known as broken windows policing, often targets people of color. It was because of a focus on “quality-of-life” enforcement that Garner had been arrested two other times in the weeks leading up to his death.
As usual, police say they were just following orders.
“The arrest of Eric Garner was the result of a chain of decisions originating at the very highest levels of the NYPD,” Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, told reporters after the hearing. “Police officers who enforce quality of life offenses are not cowboys or free agents—they follow the direction of their supervisors, who are in turn responding to complaints from the community.”
During the hearing, Pantaleo’s colleagues testified that he was actually a great officer.
“On a scale of 0 to 5, he was a 5.0,” Bannon said. “Officer Pantaleo was one of the best officers I’ve supervised.’’
But Pantaleo’s record, which was leaked to the media, shows several complaints filed against him.
“Look at the misconduct on his record,” Carr told reporters. “Good workers don’t do illegal arrests; good workers don’t choke people to death.”