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A Manhattan Judge Has Allowed An Inquiry Into Eric Garner's 2014 Death

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This month marks seven years since Eric Garner was killed by police in Staten Island. He was 43 years old. Police had confronted Garner, a Black man, for selling illegal cigarettes. NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who's white, put Garner in a banned chokehold. A medical examiner later ruled that Garner's death was a homicide. His last words, which he gasped 11 times, were, I can't breathe. That became one of the battle cries of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now a state Supreme Court judge in Manhattan has greenlit a judicial inquiry into how the city handled that fatal arrest. NPR's Jasmine Garsd is based in New York City and joins us now.

Hey, Jasmine.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So what is the Garner family hoping to learn from this inquiry?

GARSD: Well, they want to find out what happened that day. You know, the only person who was held responsible to some degree for Garner's death was officer Daniel Pantaleo, and he was fired from the force five years after the fact. Despite a homicide ruling, the Justice Department did not bring federal charges. The Garner family settled out of court, but what they are saying is there was no actual accountability.

CHANG: OK. So the family's hoping this inquiry clarifies exactly what happened around Garner's death. But I understand that they have other concerns, right?

GARSD: Yes. In fact, the family is saying that the handling of Garner's death was filled with cover-ups. One example - when one of the arresting officers returned to the precinct to fill out paperwork, he wrote that no force had been used against Garner. I spoke to Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, earlier this afternoon, and she told me she wants the message to be clear.

GWEN CARR: This is what happens when they try to cover things up. And this is what this was - a big cover-up from the very beginning. They thought that I would go away. But I'm not going away because I don't have answers.

GARSD: So the family wants to question all the officers who were at the scene of Garner's death, as well as people who filed the police reports.

CHANG: And Jasmine, why is this inquiry happening now, seven years later?

GARSD: Well, Garner's family has actually been pushing for this inquiry for years. And the city has been pushing back, among other things, arguing that they've already produced tens of thousands of records, a lot of which are public.

CHANG: And what are the next steps at this point? Like, who might be called as a witness, you think?

GARSD: The actual inquiry will begin in October. So today, a judge announced who will take the witness stand. The family had hoped to get former New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill and Mayor Bill de Blasio called in as witnesses. That didn't happen, but they might have to provide sworn affidavits. But the judge has ordered other officers who were at the scene to appear and also ordered the city to turn in extensive documents and recordings related to Garner's death and the aftermath of how it was handled. This is pretty unchartered territory. It's not like a lawsuit, where there's a settlement. Eventually, they hope the findings will bring changes to policing.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, Eric Garner's killing - it was one of the high-profile cases that strengthened the movement to reform policing in this country. So what do you think this inquiry means for that movement overall?

GARSD: Well, this comes at a time in which a lot of promises are being made about reforming the police, improving citizen relations with the police. I asked Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, what it means to get this inquiry going in the midst of all these promises.

CARR: This is what's happening all over the nation right now, that we are fearing the officers who are supposed to serve and protect us. Get the bad apples off the force.

GARSD: And basically, with this inquiry, she and other activists are saying, put your money where your mouth is.

CHANG: That is NPR's Jasmine Garsd.

Thank you, Jasmine.

GARSD: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.