Protests in NYC after grand jury doesn’t indict officer in choke hold death
(NY Times) NEW YORK – A Staten Island grand jury on Wednesday ended the criminal case against a white New York police officer whose choke hold on an unarmed black man led to the man’s death, a decision that drew condemnation from elected officials and touched off a wave of protests.
The fatal encounter in July was captured on videos and seen around the world. But after viewing the footage and hearing from witnesses, including the officer who used the choke hold, the jurors deliberated for less than a day before deciding that there was not enough evidence to go forward with charges against the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, 29, in the death of the man, Eric Garner, 43.
Officer Pantaleo, who has been on the force for eight years, appeared before the grand jury on Nov. 21, testifying that he did not intend to choke Mr. Garner, who was being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. He described the maneuver as a take down move, adding that he never thought Mr. Garner was in mortal danger.
The decision came barely a week after a grand jury found no criminality in the actions of another white police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Mo.
After the news from Staten Island, a wave of elected officials renewed calls for Justice Department intervention, saying the grand jury’s finding proved that justice could be found only in the federal courts. By the evening, the department announced it would open a civil rights inquiry.
On the streets of the city, from Tompkinsville to Times Square, many expressed their outrage with some of the last words Mr. Garner uttered before being wrestled to the ground: “This stops today,” people chanted. “I can’t breathe,” others shouted.
While hundreds of angry but generally peaceful demonstrators took to the streets in Manhattan as well as in Washington and other cities, the police in New York reported relatively few arrests, a stark contrast to the riots that unfolded in Ferguson in the hours after the grand jury decision was announced in the Brown case.
President Obama, speaking in Washington, said the decisions in New York and Missouri highlighted the frustrations that many African-Americans have harbored about a legal system that has a long history of discrimination against black people.
“When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that is a problem,” Mr. Obama said, “and it’s my job as president to help solve it.”
Officer Pantaleo said in statement on Wednesday that he felt “very bad about the death of Mr. Garner,” just as he had told the 23 panelists of the grand jury when he testified before them for two hours.
During the proceedings, jurors were shown three videos of the encounter, and in his testimony Officer Pantaleo sought to characterize his actions as a maneuver taught at the Police Academy. He said that while holding onto Mr. Garner, he felt fear that they would crash through a plate glass storefront as they tumbled to the ground, said Stuart London, his lawyer. One of the officer’s arms went around Mr. Garner’s throat, as Mr. Garner repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
Appearing with the Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem, Mr. Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, said she did not accept the officer’s apology.
“Hell, no,” Ms. Garner said. “The time for remorse for the death of my husband was when he was yelling to breathe.”
She said that while she mourned, the officer could go home to his family.
“He’s still feeding his kids,” she said, “and my husband is six feet under and I’m looking for a way to feed my kids now.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking on Staten Island, said that it was a “deeply emotional day” for the Garner family and all New Yorkers, and that he had thought of his own son in considering Mr. Garner’s fate. But he implored demonstrators to voice their outrage peacefully and not engage in the destructive violence that followed protests in Ferguson over Mr. Brown’s death.
“Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want,” Mr. de Blasio said. “Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest.”
An autopsy by the city’s medical examiner found that Mr. Garner’s death was a homicide resulting from the choke hold — a maneuver banned by the Police Department in 1993 — and the compression of his chest by police officers.
In early September, the Staten Island district attorney, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., impaneled the grand jury to weigh evidence; it heard testimony from the officers involved and 22 civilian witnesses. All of the officers, with the exception of Officer Pantaleo, were granted immunity.
The encounter exposed apparent lapses in police tactics and raised questions about the aggressive policing of minor offenses in a time of historically low crime. The officers involved, part of a plainclothes unit, suspected Mr. Garner of selling cigarettes on the street near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, a complaint voiced by local business owners.
Mr. Garner’s death hastened an effort to retrain all the department’s patrol officers and brought scrutiny on how officers who violate its rules are disciplined. Officer Pantaleo has been stripped of his gun and badge during the investigation.
Now, Mr. de Blasio said, the grand jury decision had accelerated the need for that overhaul. Earlier on Wednesday, the mayor announced the start of a pilot program to equip officers with body cameras to record encounters on patrol.
But how useful such technology will prove to be in settling disputes over police actions remains an open question. Mr. Garner’s relatives had believed for months that a widely circulated cellphone video of the violent arrest that caused his death would be enough to convince grand jurors that the case merited a criminal trial.
Jonathan C. Moore, a lawyer for the Garner family, said “We’re astounded by the outcome of the grand jury process.”
In a statement, Mr. Donovan said investigators also spoke with the emergency responders who provided medical treatment both at the scene and at the hospital, and expert witnesses in the area of forensic pathology as well as the procedures and training of police officers. He said that he was constrained by law from discussing details of their findings, but that he had petitioned the court for “authorization to publicly release specific information in connection with this grand jury investigation.”
He expressed his condolences to the family and said his office conducted a thorough investigation that “spanned four months.”
“I assured the public that I was committed to a fair, thorough, and responsible investigation into Mr. Garner’s death,” he said.
Grand juries determine whether enough evidence exists for a case to go forward to a criminal trial, either before a jury or a judge. By law, they operate in secret and hear only evidence presented by prosecutors, who also instruct the grand jurors on the law. Defense lawyers are barred from speaking. For a decision, 12 jurors who have heard all of the evidence must agree.
While the exact makeup of the grand jury was unclear, Mr. London said it was roughly half white, with the other half evenly divided among blacks and Hispanics.
With the criminal phase over, Officer Pantaleo’s fate moves into the realm of Police Department discipline. It is far from clear if he will return to enforcement duties, and Commissioner William J. Bratton said he would remain on suspension pending an internal investigation.
Even before Mr. Garner’s death, Mr. Bratton had been tasked by the mayor with repairing the fissures between the police and the communities they serve, moving away from street stops and minor marijuana arrests. Those changes, however, have yet to quell the anger that deaths such as Mr. Garner’s bring forth.