Lawyer ‘astonished’ as New York police officer will not face charges over death of Eric Garner in chokehold that was caught on camera
More than four months after an unarmed black man died in a chokehold during an arrest by a New York police officer, the criminal case against the officers involved in his death has collapsed with a special grand jury decision not bring charges, according to an attorney for the victim’s family.
The Associated Press quoted Jonathon Moore, who represents Eric Garner’s family, saying he was “astonished by the decision”.
The decision comes after racial tensions reached fever pitch in Missouri, the scene of violence and rioting after a grand jury declined to bring charges against a white police office in the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. His death sparked hundreds of protests across the country and snapped into focus seething race issues.
Only 17 July, police stopped the heavy-set father of six on Staten Islandunder suspicion of peddling untaxed “loose” cigarettes. Garner had been arrested previously for selling untaxed cigarettes, marijuana possession and false impersonation.
A video shot by an bystander shows Garner resisting arrest as a plainclothes officer attempts to to handcuff him. Backing away from the office, Garner tells him: “This stops today,” which has become a rallying cry for protesters in New York.
A struggle ensues. Eight-year NYPD veteran Daniel Pantaleo responds by putting his arm around Garner’s neck in a chokehold – banned under police policy – and wrestling the asthmatic man to the ground with the aid of several officers. Garner gasps “I can’t breathe” until his 350lb body goes limp. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Speaking at Garner’s funeral in July, the Rev Al Sharpton urged a federal civil rights investigation, and argued for charges to be brought against the officer.
“Let’s not play games with this one. You don’t need no training to stop choking a man saying ‘I can’t breathe’,” Sharpton shouted to a packed church. “You don’t need no cultural orientation to stop choking a man saying ‘I can’t breathe.’ You need to be prosecuted.”
Garner’s death touched off protests and rallies across the city. Weeks later, the city’s medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, heightening calls for criminal charges. The autopsy findings said Garner died as a result of the chokehold, which caused him to suffer chest compressions.
Pantaleo was stripped of his gun and badge while an investigation takes place; the actions of the other officers and emergency responders involved in the incident were also examined.
Tensions had been simmering all week as New Yorkers braced for the verdict, delivered ahead of the anticipated grand jury decision on whether to bring charges against the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Activists called for a day of action following the verdict to protest the decision not to pursue charges against Pantaleo. Protesters are also demanding an end to a policing philosophy championed by NYPD commissioner William Bratton. The policing model, known as broken windows, emphasizes attention to petty crime – such as selling untaxed cigarettes – as means of stymying large-scale crime.
The decision may compound already frayed relations between the New York police department and minority communities, which Bratton and the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, pledged to repair.
The NYPD outlawed chokeholds over two decades ago, exactly because they can be deadly if administered inappropriately or carelessly. Still, between January 2009 and June 2014, the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that investigates police misconduct, received 1,128 civilian complaints involving chokehold allegations. Of these, only a small fraction of the cases are ever substantiated, just ten over the five and a half year window.
In the days after Garner’s death, Bratton said all 35,000 officers would be retrained on the department’s use of force policy.
The family has sued the city and the police department, as well as several officers involved in the incident.