STATEN ISLAND — The NYPD officer at the center of the tragic apparent chokehold death of Eric Garner testified Friday morning before a Staten Island grand jury, DNAinfo New York has learned.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo spent hours telling his story to the 23-member panel that will decide whether he and any other officers should face criminal charges in the death of Garner, a man who died while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes in Tompkinsville.
Sources say Pantaleo insisted that he did not use a chokehold, which is barred by the NYPD, but not illegal, and that he employed tactics and techniques that he was trained to use while subduing a suspect.
Pantaleo also told the panel what he was thinking when he approached the burly Garner: He was unaware that the 350-pound suspect had medical problems, and he did not intend to do anything to seriously harm the Staten Island father when he tried to arrest him.
The medical examiner, however, ruled Garner’s death a homicide resulting from the use of a chokehold and chest compression. The ME also said a combination of factors, including Garner’s asthma, obesity and other health and heart maladies, contributed to his death.
Pantaleo’s appearance before the grand jury signals that the three-month inquiry is nearing its conclusion because police officers are generally given an opportunity to testify during the final stages of the panel’s inquiry.
Sources say the grand jury is expected to complete its work between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
A spokesman for Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan declined comment or to confirm or deny Pantaleo’s appearance.
Garner’s death was captured on a video that went viral and prompted demonstrations against NYPD tactics and aggressive police policies, including Commissioner Bill Bratton’s vaunted “Broken Windows” policy of targeting minor criminal offenses to curtail serious crimes.
On the video, Garner, who had been arrested dozens of times before, repeatedly refuses to be handcuffed as he is surrounded by a handful of officers.
The officers finally move in, with Pantaleo grabbing Garner around his neck from behind trying with other officers to bring him to ground.
During the struggle, Garner, 43, a father of six and a horticulturalist with the city’s Parks Department, can be heard numerous times saying he cannot breathe. Tragically, he finally goes silent on his side as paramedics arrive, but they provided virtually no emergency care.
Pantaleo, 29, an officer with eight years on the force, was placed on modified assignment, stripped of his gun and badge. Another officer, Justin D’Amico, was put on desk duty. Four EMTs were also suspended.
In the wake of Garner’s death, Bratton ordered the entire 35,000-member force to undergo retraining, and he has ordered his brass to review the way the NYPD subdues suspects.
Pantaleo’s testimony also comes as a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., is poised to make its decision in the controversial police shooting of Michael Brown.
Last Wednesday, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is planning Ferguson demonstrations around the country when that grand jury completes its work, criticized that the length of time the Staten Island case has taken.