NEW YORK — A grand jury in New York on Wednesday decided not to indict white police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the July chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man.
Federal officials subsequently announced they were moving ahead with a civil rights investigation.
During the fatal encounter July 17 on Staten Island, Garner raised both hands in the air and told the officers not to touch him. Seconds later, a video shows an officer behind Garner grab him in a chokehold and pull him to the sidewalk, rolling him onto his stomach.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Garner said repeatedly, his cries muffled into the pavement.
Garner, 43, was pronounced dead that day. Police had suspected Garner of selling cigarettes illegally.
The cause of Garner’s death was “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police,” the medical examiner’s office has said. The New York City Police Department prohibits chokeholds. The death was ruled a homicide.
The grand jury was made up of 14 white and nine nonwhite members, according to law enforcement sources. A total of 12 jurors who have heard all the evidence must be in agreement for a decision. The grand jury found that there was no “reasonable cause” to indict.
The case became emblematic of longstanding tensions between police and minority communities, especially given that the majority of people stopped under the former “stop-and-frisk” police policy were African-American or Hispanic.
A federal court ruled that stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional and tantamount to racial profiling.
The Garner death led to demonstrations around the city and came weeks before the racially charged police shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Wednesday night, hundreds of protesters poured onto the streets of New York, weaving around traffic from Union Square to Columbus Circle and mixing with hordes of people gathered for the annual Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center
“Hand up. Don’t shoot,” some demonstrators shouted. Columbus Circle was blocked by protesters for a time.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at the same time announced an “independent, thorough, fair and expeditious” Justice Department investigation into whether civil rights were violated.
“This is not a New York issue, nor a Ferguson issue alone,” Holder said.
Officials from the White House down to New York’s City Council sought to assure residents that the investigation was underway and to appeal for peace.
‘National moment of grief”
President Barack Obama said the case reflected a longtime “concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them, and dealing with them in a fair way.”
“We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust, and a strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement,” he said.
Standing outside the Staten Island store where his son was put into a fatal chokehold, Garner’s father, Ben, told a crowd that he was hopeful about the federal investigation and urged demonstrators to remain peaceful.
“We want justice for Eric,” he said. “We ain’t tearing up nothing. We ain’t burning up nothing… The police is our problem. No violence. That is all I ask.”
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, and his widow, Esaw Garner, were scheduled to speak to the press Wednesday night.
Mayor Bill de Blasio sought to allay tensions, saying that he had received assurances from Washington that the federal investigation of Garner’s death would move forward “expeditiously and with a clear sense of independence.”
De Blasio said the grand jury decision has created “a national moment of pain, a national moment of grief and searching for a solution.”
Anticipating demonstrations, de Blasio said earlier that New York “owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest. We trust that those unhappy with today’s grand jury decision will make their views known in the same peaceful, constructive way.”
Pantaleo, according to a statement from his union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said: “I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves. It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan Jr. expressed his “condolences to Eric Garner’s family for their loss, and to acknowledge the heartache of his mother, his wife, his children, as well as his other family members, loved ones, and friends, who have consistently carried themselves with grace.”
Donovan said the grand jury conducted dozens of interviews with witnesses, including 22 civilians, and met between September 29 and December 3.
An attorney for Pantaleo said his client testified for approximately two hours on November 21 in front of the grand jury.
On the streets of Staten Island, where Garner lived and died, people gathering at the spot where officers attempted to arrest him and near the prosecutor’s officer.
“This is ridiculous,” one man said. “This is outrageous.”
U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, called the decision “a miscarriage of justice” an “outrage” and a “disgrace.”
“It’s a blow to our democracy and it should shock the conscious of every single American who cares about justice and fair play,” he told reporters in Washington. “He was killed in plain sight for all of America to see because this was captured on video. And so it’s inexplicable that this grand jury could not return a single charge.”
‘There are no winners’
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said, “there are no winners” from the grand jury decision.
“There was a loss of life that both a family and a police officer will always have to live with,” he said.
“It is clear that the officer’s intention was to do nothing more than take Mr. Garner into custody as instructed and that he used the take-down technique that he learned in the academy when Mr. Garner refused,” Lynch said. “No police officer starts a shift intending to take another human being’s life and we are all saddened by this tragedy.”
Staten Island City Councilwoman Debi Rose said the decision means “there will be no accountability of the police officers who, by the medical examiner’s report, caused the death of Eric Garner.”
“Make no mistake, this video clearly demonstrates over reaction by the police, and then callous indifference to physical condition of Mr. Garner by the police and medical personnel,” she said in a statement. “This could happen to anyone of any ethnicity by overzealous police officers.”
Brown and Garner
The grand jury’s decision came on the same day that the New York Police Department, in an attempt to bolster public confidence, announced plans to start having some officers wear body cameras.
“When something happens, to have a video record of it, from the police officers’ perspective, is going to help in many, many ways,” de Blasio told reporters. “And God forbid, when something goes wrong, we are going to have a clearer understanding of what happened.”
Parallels mark the deaths of Garner and Brown, both black, starting with crimes they were suspected of: Brown allegedly stole cigars from a convenience store; Garner was allegedly selling cigarettes tax-free.
Another similarity that has become the hallmark of protests in Ferguson: Garner put his hands up in the air, as the crook of Pantaleo’s elbow tightened around his throat.
Some eyewitnesses have said Brown also made that gesture in surrender. But other witnesses contradicted them.
No video was rolling, so doubts over that and other details will always hang over the moment that former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot the unarmed teen.
That has led Obama to call for law officers all over the country to record their operations with body cameras.
In Garner’s case, there can be little doubt what happened.
Before he gasped what appeared to be his final breaths, someone hit record on a cell phone camera. The details of his take-down spread through the Internet as the video went viral.
Wilson and Pantaleo
In the Ferguson case, Wilson argued before the Missouri grand jury that he shot Brown — who Wilson said tried to wrest away his gun and then charged at him — in self-defense.
In the Staten Island cell phone video, Garner did not go after Pantaleo but had his back to him; the officer jumped him from behind then tackled him to the ground.
The New York Medical Examiner has ruled Garner’s death a homicide. The cause of death was “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”
But the medical examiner also listed acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity and hypertensive cardiovascular disease as contributing factors in Garner’s death.
In Ferguson, Wilson went into hiding after death threats and kept his status of police officer but was placed on leave. He resigned shortly after the grand jury decision.
After the chokehold, Pantaleo was put on modified assignment and stripped of his badge and gun amid the investigation, and the NYPD’s commissioner ordered an extensive review of training procedures.
Two lawsuits have previously been filed against Pantaleo. The plaintiffs in both suits allege false arrest, unlawful imprisonment, civil rights violations and other charges.
One suit from 2013 was dismissed in January 2014, while the second, from February 2014, remains open.
Ferguson and New York
In both Ferguson and New York, mostly African-American protesters took to the streets for weeks after both men died to decry police violence.
Demonstrators in New York have called the police response during Garner’s arrest excessive and criminal, but during protests, the contact between police and demonstrators has been largely cordial.
Missing were the tear gas canisters, assault rifles, armored vehicles and the lootings and flying bottles that marred the St. Louis suburb in the wake of Brown’s death.
When the Missouri grand jury declined to charge Wilson, violence returned to Ferguson, as cars were set on fire.
On Wednesday, the police department requested that all officers be released from nonessential court appearances for a couple of day, a city official said.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at various points in Manhattan, including Times Square and Union Square, marching peacefully north as crowds formed near Rockefeller Center for the lighting of the Christmas tree. “No Justice. No peace,” they chanted. “No racist police.”