NEW YORK — After five years of investigations and protests, the New York City Police Department on Monday fired an officer involved in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, the unarmed man whose dying gasps of "I can't breathe" gave voice to a national debate over race and police use of force.
Police Commissioner James O'Neill said he fired Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, based on a recent recommendation of a department disciplinary judge.
O'Neill said he thought Pantaleo's use of the banned chokehold as he wrestled with Garner was a mistake that could have been made by any officer in the heat of an arrest. But it was clear Pantaleo had broken department rules and "can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer."
"None of us can take back our decisions," O'Neill said, "especially when they lead to the death of another human being."
The decision was welcomed by activists and Garner's family, but immediately condemned by the head of the city's largest police union, who declared that it would undermine morale and cause officers to hesitate to use force under any circumstances, for fear they could be fired.
"The job is dead!" Patrolman's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said at a news conference, standing in front of a police department flag that had been hung upside down.
His voice cracking with anger, Lynch called Pantaleo an "exemplary" officer and called for union members to participate in a no-confidence vote on the mayor and commissioner.
Pantaleo's lawyer, Stuart London, said he would try to get the officer reinstated.
De Blasio, speaking at City Hall, said he hoped the decision would let the city, the department and Garner's family move forward.
"Today, we are finally seeing justice done," he said. "Today will not bring Eric Garner back, but I hope it brings some small measure of closure to the Garner family."