Federal civil rights prosecutors have recommended charges against a New York City police officer in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, but top Justice Department officials have expressed strong reservations about whether to move forward with a case they say may not be winnable, reports the New York Times. Garner died on a Staten Island street after officer Daniel Pantaleo used a chokehold to subdue him. Officers had confronted Garner, who was unarmed, over accusations of selling untaxed cigarettes. Career prosecutors recommended civil rights charges against Pantaleo and sought approval from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to seek an indictment. Rosenstein convened several meetings that revealed divisions within the Justice Department over whether to move forward. It appeared unlikely that Rosenstein would approve charges.
The death of Garner, along with the shooting death a month later of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and several other high-profile police encounters started the most significant debate over the use of force by police officers since the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. The federal inquiry into Garner’s death dragged on for years and has divided the Justice Department investigative team since the Obama administration. Prosecutors in New York argued against bringing charges, while civil rights prosecutors in Washington said it represented a clear case of excessive force. Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch sided with her civil rights chief, Vanita Gupta, and authorized prosecutors to build a case for indictment. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has promised to hold officers accountable for abuses. “Just as I am committed to defending law enforcement who use deadly force while lawfully engaged in their work, I will also hold any officer responsible (for) breaking the law,” he told the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives last year.