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NY policeman not indicted in chokehold death, spurring protests

A New York City grand jury has decided not to charge a police officer who killed an unarmed black man with a chokehold while trying to arrest him for illegally selling cigarettes, the local district attorney said on Wednesday.

The deadly encounter in July on Staten Island, New York City’s smallest borough, was captured on video, which quickly spread over the Internet and fueled debate about how U.S. police use force, particularly against minorities.

Last week, a grand jury in Missouri decided not to indict a white police officer in another racially charged killing of a black man. The decision in that case sparked a spasm of violence in Ferguson, Missouri, with businesses burned down and looted.

Staten Island resident Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, died on July 17 after police officers tackled him and put him in a chokehold. The city’s medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

New York City police prepared on Wednesday for protests that could potentially paralyze major roads and tunnels in the city. About two dozen demonstrators lay down in the middle of Grand Central Station’s main hall in Midtown Manhattan in a silent protest as the evening rush hour began, as commuters crisscrossed through the terminal.

President Barack Obama, while not directly commenting on the case, said the grand jury decision spoke to “the 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 trust and strengthening of accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement,” he said.

The district attorney for Staten Island, Daniel Donovan, announced the grand jury’s decision not to indict the white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who placed Garner in a chokehold.

“It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner,” Pantaleo said in a statement released by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association union.

Benjamin Carr, stepfather of Garner, said he was distraught over the verdict. “Put it in the hands of the federal government. Let them do something about it,” he said.

At the site where Eric Garner was apprehended by police and a makeshift memorial to his honor now stands, tempers flared as about a dozen protesters expressed their anger at the grand jury’s decision with a protest on the sidewalk. Some demonstrators defiantly crushed cigarettes in front of reporters and passersby – a reference to the reason that police gave for approaching Garner in the first place.

Daniel Skelton, a black 40-year-old banker, spoke loudly as he expressed his outrage steps away from Garner’s memorial.

“They just don’t like us,” he said, referring to police. Skelton called his reaction “not so much anger as frustration. A black man’s life just don’t matter in this country.

“There was a video, there’s no question about what happened,” he added, appearing stunned.

It is rare for either federal or state prosecutors to charge a U.S. police officer for excessive force, even when a death results.

“There are a lot of cases where police officers don’t get indicted for what looks like extreme situations,” said Aaron Mysliwiec, president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Many jurors and judges tend to believe police officers more than your average witness.”

The U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts have over decades ruled that police officers should have wide latitude to use violence to defend themselves and to take suspects into custody.

In ruling Garner’s death a homicide, the city medical examiner said police officers killed him by compressing his neck and chest. His health problems, including asthma and obesity, were contributing factors, the medical examiner said.

The video of Garner’s arrest shows him arguing with police officers, saying “please leave me alone,” and later “don’t touch me” before a group of four officers tackled him to the ground, at which point he began to plead with them, “I can’t breathe.” Police said later Garner had been resisting arrest.

Donovan said he had applied for a court order to authorize the release of “specific information in connection with the Garner grand jury investigation.” He noted in his statement that under New York law he is not permitted to disclose any details of a grand jury proceeding.

The grand jury, like all in New York, had 23 members. At least 12 grand jurors must agree to bring an indictment. Donovan said that all 23 grand jurors attended every one of the sessions in the Garner case, which began on Sept. 29 and ended on Wednesday.



The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the municipal police union, has maintained that the officers acted properly and within the scope of the law. The New York Police Department’s patrol manual bans chokeholds, calling them dangerous.

Mayor Bill de Blasio called for people to react peacefully to the grand jury decision. The grand jury decision poses the biggest challenge for De Blasio since coming into office in January.

In the aftermath of the Garner incident, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said every officer in the police department, the nation’s largest police force, would have to undergo new training. He said it would emphasize tactics that could calm an encounter, something the police department has described as “verbal judo.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union has criticized the department’s Patrol Guide, describing its section on the use of force as “skeletal,” offering “precious little affirmative guidance” to police.

Between 2009 and 2013, the board confirmed nearly 5,400 public allegations of police officers using physical force. In only 189 instances, including all nine substantiated instances of a chokehold, the only off-limits maneuver, did the board deem the use of force excessive.


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