Mayor Bill De Blasio And Other Top Officials Escape Judicial Inquiry Into Eric Garner’s Death

In a partial victory for the city, a New York judge ruled Friday that Mayor Bill de Blasio; former police commissioners William Bratton, James O’Neill, and Dermot Shea; and other senior city officials will not be required to take the stand in a judicial inquiry into Eric Garner’s 2014 chokehold death on Staten Island.  

The list of now-exempt officials also includes chief medical examiner Barbara Sampson, former and current first deputy mayors Anthony Shorris and Dean Fuleihan, and several EMT workers who were on the scene. 

“I’m disappointed that the court hasn’t said that they will force the Mayor and NYPD Commissioner to take the stand,” Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, said in a statement. “The refusal to fully investigate and discipline officers for misconduct goes all the way to the top levels of city government.” 

In her decision, however, Judge Erika Edwards found, “several other individuals appear to have personal knowledge of the subject matter and they appear to be as competent, if not more competent, to testify as to the material facts to be addressed during the summary inquiry.” 

Those city officials who will be compelled to take the stand include NYPD deputy commissioner for public information Phillip Walzak and deputy commissioner of internal affairs Joseph Reznick. The court also ordered the Police Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch to testify, as well as former NYPD Sergeant Kizzy Adonis who was the supervising officer on the scene when Garner died. 

Judge Edwards also ordered other first responders who were on Bay Street that day to give sworn testimony. 

The Garner family is pursuing a rarely used judicial inquiry under section 1109 of the New York City Charter which allows the courts to investigate an alleged violation or neglect of duty in relation to the affairs of the city at the request of a group of citizens filing an affidavit swearing under oath that one, or more city officers or employees have information concerning the alleged violation or neglect of duty. 

Friday’s ruling came after the family asked the court to compel top-ranking officials and first responders on Bay Street that July day to testify as part of the inquiry. The family argued that these witnesses are necessary to assess their claim of neglect of duty for failing to investigate and discipline the officers involved in Garner’s death, especially former officer Daniel Pantaleo who applied the fatal chokehold but was never disciplined by the department until he was fired in 2019. The family is also seeking documents from the city relating to how, and why Garner died on July 17, 2014.

“It’s not about what happened after this tragedy, it’s about what’s happened during it,” Mayor de Blasio said when asked about the inquiry on WNYC. “This has been looked at exhaustively and I feel horrible for the Garner family…what happened was wrong but we do need to move on.”

State appellate judges last week unanimously rejected an appeal from the city which asked to prevent the inquiry from taking place.

The decision was focused on the family’s demand for witnesses and documents during the inquiry, and Judge Edwards granted the Garner family’s representatives’ request for additional files from the city, which would include handwritten documents, recordings, and transcripts regarding Garner’s stop and arrest, the use of force against him and the medical attention he did, or did not receive. 

The city argued that it had already complied with Garner’s family’s representatives in releasing “over 40,000 records” in a hearing on Monday. 

“We’re pleased that the court recognized that there was no reason to compel the mayor, current and former police commissioners, or other high ranking officials to testify because they were not directly involved in the incident,” a Law Department spokesman said in a statement to WNYC/Gothamist. “The city has already provided tens of thousands of records to the petitioners in response to FOIL requests and so much other information about this incident is already publicly available.” 

Representatives for the Garner family, however, told the court they had only so far received summaries and notes from the city. 

Since the enactment in 1873 of the city’s rarely used Section 1109 allowing for judicial inquiry, there have reportedly been only two other recorded cases in New York City history. 

The judicial inquiry into the killing of Eric Garner is tentatively set to begin on October 25.  

Joseph Gedeon reported this story for the Gothamist/WNYC’s Race & Justice Unit. If you have a tip, some data, or a story idea, email him at jgedeon@wnyc.org or reach out on Twitter @JGedeon1.

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