“Not a big deal,” the lieutenant replied. “We were effecting a lawful arrest.”
Audible gasps were heard as the texts were read aloud Thursday during a police disciplinary hearing for Officer Daniel Pantaleo. He is accused of recklessly using a chokehold that led to Garner’s death after he was detained on the suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes.
The texts and testimony provided unsettling new details in one of the most wrenching cases of suspected police misconduct in New York.
Garner’s dying words “I can’t breathe” — repeated 11 times — set off protests around the country and became a powerful slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The texts between the commander, Lt. Christopher Bannon, and the officer, Sgt. Dhanan Saminath, were revealed for the first time on the fourth day of the hearing for Pantaleo, who faces possible termination.
He has never faced criminal charges. A grand jury on Staten Island declined to indict Pantaleo in 2014. A federal civil rights inquiry has dragged on for years without charges being filed. The statute of limitations expires July 17, the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death.
An independent police watchdog agency, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, brought the current charges against Pantaleo, which resulted in this week’s hearing.
The evidence at the hearing picked up events from the Police Department’s perspective while Garner — who was at least 6 feet 3 inches tall and had asthma so severe that he quit his job — was lying motionless on the ground on Bay Street near the Staten Island Ferry.
The communications started with Saminath messaging Bannon and telling him that Garner had been wrestled to the ground and then adding, “He’s most likely DOA,” using the acronym for dead on arrival. “He has no pulse,” Saminath wrote.
After acknowledging the message, Bannon wrote his follow-up note, now linking “Not a big deal” with “I can’t breathe” as the two defining quotations from Garner’s death.
“No big deal?” Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, angrily told reporters outside the Police Department’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, where the hearing was held. “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?”
During Monday’s testimony, the supervisor who oversaw the police’s internal review, Deputy Inspector Charles Barton, said that in 2015 he ordered the lead investigator to recommend disciplinary charges against Pantaleo. But the department’s internal prosecution unit never filed charges.
The medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Garner testified Wednesday that the chokehold “set into motion a lethal sequence” that led to the asthma attack that killed him.
Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, said his client used an approved maneuver, a “seatbelt hold,” that the police had been trained to use in incidents where people act violently or are resisting arrest.
But the commanding officer of the police academy, Deputy Inspector Richard Dee, testified Tuesday that Pantaleo’s actions meet “the definition of a chokehold.” He added that the seatbelt maneuver was neither taught or approved by the department in 2006, when Pantaleo went through the academy, nor in 2008, when he received training to become a plainclothes officer.
London said this week that his client had been a “scapegoat” and added that Garner was in poor health and that he “set these factors in motion by resisting arrest.”
London used the testimony of Bannon, Saminath and two other officers who were involved in the arrest to try to establish that his client was an exemplary officer and that Garner had been resisting arrest.
But the introduction of the text messages under cross-examination by prosecutors from the Civilian Complaint Review Board seemed to damage the defense’s case.
Bannon was pressed by one prosecutor, Suzanne O'Hare, to explain his text message.
“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?” O’Hare said.
Bannon hesitated for several seconds. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he said.
The testimony Thursday also focused on the low-level “quality of life’’ enforcement the police were conducting in the weeks before Garner’s death. Garner was arrested three times during that crackdown, the final one on the day he died.
“The arrest of Eric Garner was the result of a chain of decisions originating at the very highest levels of the NYPD,” Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said 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.”
Pantaleo’s supervisors testified that they considered him an outstanding worker.
“On a scale of 0 to 5, he was a 5.0,” Bannon said, adding that “Officer Pantaleo was one of the best officers I’ve supervised.’’
But after the hearing, Carr reminded reporters about Pantaleo’s disciplinary record, which was leaked to the news media and showed that he had several complaints filed against him.
“Look at the misconduct on his record,” Carr said. “Good workers don’t do illegal arrests; good workers don’t choke people to death.”
The text messages exchanged between Bannon and Saminath represent some of the first communications within the Police Department’s command structure about how this arrest ultimately resulted in Garner’s death.
At 4:11 p.m. Saminath sent a text to 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,” Saminath wrote.
“For the smokes?” Bannon responded.
“Yeah, they observed him selling,” 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.’’
“OK, keep me posted. I’m still here,” Bannon wrote. Then he sent his next message, assuring Saminath that it was not a “big deal.’’
While Bannon’s reaction upset Garner’s family and supporters, he will not likely face any disciplinary action, according to the police. Too much time has elapsed since he sent the text for administrative charges to be filed.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.