Decision in Eric Garner Chokehold Case
NEW YORK (AP) — A grand jury cleared a white New York City police officer Wednesday in the videotaped chokehold death of an unarmed black man stopped for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes — a case that sparked outrage and drew comparisons to the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
The decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo heightened tensions that have simmered in the city since the July 17 death of Eric Garner.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in Times Square with a combination of professional-looking signs and hand-scrawled placards reading, “Black lives matter” and “Fellow white people, wake up.” And in the Staten Island neighborhood where Garner died, people reacted with angry disbelief and chanted, “I can’t breathe!” and “Hands up — don’t choke!”
His stepfather, Benjamin Carr, urged calm but said the ruling made no sense.
“It’s just a license to kill a black man,” he said, calling the justice system “not worth a damn.”
In Washington, a Justice Department official said federal authorities would conduct their own investigation into Garner’s death.
In his first public comments, Pantaleo said he prays for Garner’s family and hopes they accept his condolences.
“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” he said in the statement. “It is never my intention to harm anyone, and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.”
Police union officials and Pantaleo’s lawyer argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a banned maneuver, because Garner was resisting arrest. They said his poor health was the main reason he died.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to bring charges. The grand jury could have considered a range of charges, from reckless endangerment to murder.
“I am actually astonished based on the evidence of the videotape, and the medical examiner, that this grand jury at this time wouldn’t indict for anything,” said a lawyer for Garner’s family, Jonathan Moore.
As protests started to gather steam citywide, Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled an appearance at the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting and met with Garner’s father and other community leaders. At a Staten Island church, he said “there’s a lot of pain and frustration in the room this evening,” but he called on protesters to remain peaceful.
A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the Internet showed the 43-year-old Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck in what appeared to be a chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy.
The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, was heard repeatedly gasping, “I can’t breathe!”
A second video surfaced that showed police and paramedics appearing to make no effort to revive Garner while he lay motionless on the ground. He later died at a hospital.
As with 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, the Garner case sparked protests, accusations of racist policing and calls for federal prosecutors to intervene. But unlike the Missouri protests, the demonstrations in New York remained mostly peaceful.
The case prompted Police Commissioner William Bratton to order officers at the nation’s largest police department to undergo retraining on use of force.
After the grand jury decision came down, several dozen demonstrators at the site of the arrest scattered cigarettes on the ground in homage to Garner and lit candles.
“Cold-blooded murder!” said Jennie Chambers, who works nearby and saw Garner daily. “We saw it on TV, it’s on video. The whole world saw it. Ferguson, now us.”
Daniel Skelton came from Rahway, New Jersey, after hearing the news.
“I’m tired of the police harassment and killing of innocent African-American men,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of evil police officers hiding behind the good of the badge.”
The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. A forensic pathologist hired by Garner’s family, Dr. Michael Baden, agreed with those findings, saying there was hemorrhaging on Garner’s neck indicative of neck compressions.
While details on the grand jurors were not disclosed, Staten Island is the most politically conservative of the city’s five boroughs and home to many police and firefighters. The district attorney said he will seek to have information on the investigation released.
Pantaleo had been stripped of his gun and badge and will remain on desk duty pending an internal police investigation that could result in administrative charges.
As the grand jury decision drew near, police officials met with community leaders on Staten Island to head off the kind of violence seen in Ferguson, where a grand jury decided not to indict the white officer who shot the black teen. Demonstrations there resulted in more than 100 arrests and destruction of 12 commercial buildings by fire.