A grand jury today declined to indict a white police officer in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black New Yorker whose last words — “I can’t breathe” — were caught on video and became a rallying cry for protesters demanding police reforms.
A lawyer involved in the case confirmed the grand jury decision to the Associated Press.
Garner died July 17, three weeks before a white policeman shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The two cases became symbols of what protesters called a tendency by white officers to overreact when confronting African Americans.
The 43-year-old Staten Island man stopped breathing after Officer Daniel Pantaleo, 29, put him in what appeared to be an illegal chokehold while trying to subdue him. The city’s medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide resulting from compression of his neck and chest, but the grand jury did not find reasonable cause to charge Pantaleo with a crime.
The New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union reacted swifty to the decision:
“The failure of the Staten Island Grand Jury to file an indictment in the killing of Eric Garner leaves New Yorkers with an inescapable question: How will the NYPD hold the officers accountable for his death? And what will Commissioner Bratton do to ensure that this is the last tragedy of its kind?” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York ACLU. “Unless the Police Department aggressively deals with its culture of impunity and trains officers that they must simultaneously protect both safety and individual rights, officers will continue to believe that they can act without consequence.”
Unlike the protests in Ferguson, which erupted after the Aug. 9 killing of Michael Brown by police Officer Darren Wilson, the New York rallies that followed Garner’s death did not turn violent. But marches in both cities reflected distrust of the police among many blacks, and the demands were the same: prosecution of the officers involved in the deaths.
The Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, who said he shot Brown in self-defense. Pantaleo had no such defense, and his confrontation with Garner, and Garner’s struggle as he died, were captured on video by an onlooker.
The video, which quickly went viral, showed Garner becoming visibly edgy as several officers surrounded him on the Staten Island sidewalk where he was allegedly selling cigarettes illegally.
In the video, Garner accuses police of harassing him and tells them: “I’m tired of it. It stops today.”
“I’m minding my business,” Garner says as officers move closer. “Please just leave me alone.”
As Garner says “Don’t touch me,” Pantaleo grabs him around his neck from behind. Several other officers join in restraining Garner as he falls to the ground. “I can’t breathe,” Garner can be heard saying at least seven times as the officers hold him down and as Pantaleo pushes his head into the sidewalk.
Pantaleo was placed on modified leave and stripped of his gun and badge after Garner’s death. His partner, Justin D’Amico, was assigned to desk duty.
New York’s police commissioner, William Bratton, said Garner’s death showed the need for better training of officers, especially in use-of-force tactics. Chokeholds like the kind Pantaleo was accused of using have been banned by the New York Police Department since 1993, but the city’s civilian complaints board, which hears allegations of police abuse, says there have been at least 1,022 complaints alleging chokeholds since 2009. Nine of those were substantiated, the board said.
The city’s police union said Pantaleo did not use an illegal chokehold, and it blamed Garner for instigating the confrontation by resisting arrest and forcing officers to try to subdue him.
“Not wanting to be arrested does not grant an individual the right to resist arrest nor does it free the officers of the obligation to make the arrest,” Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Assn., said after Pantaleo was taken off the streets. In a later statement, Lynch said police welcomed training that would improve safety, but added, “What we don’t need is training that only tells us what we can’t do when a person resists arrest.”
Garner’s death was the first in a series of high-profile cases over the summer and fall, including Brown’s, that ignited firestorms over police tactics and race relations and which continue to generate controversy.
On Aug. 5, police in Beavercreek, Ohio, shot and killed a man in a Wal-Mart who was carrying a toy gun he had picked up from one of the aisles.
On Nov. 18, a police officer shot to death an unarmed man in a Brooklyn apartment building in what Bratton called a tragic mistake.
On Nov. 22, Cleveland police shot a 12-year-old boy waving a toy gun outside a recreation center. The boy died the next day.
In each case, the slain male was black. The Garner case bore some striking similarities to the Brown case in the anger it aroused and in the district attorney’s response.
Staten Island Dist. Atty. Daniel Donovan convened a grand jury in September to review the evidence in the Garner case, just as St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch did after Brown’s death. The Staten Island jury began meeting in September and deliberated far longer than grand juries usually meet to consider cases. The St. Louis grand jury also met for a long time, convening Aug. 20 and announcing its decision Nov. 24, which in turn triggered days of unrest across the country.
In both cases, jurors heard directly from the police officers, giving Wilson and Pantaleo the opportunity to tell their sides and leaving jurors to sort through mounds of often contradictory statements.
The breadth of material presented to the jurors in the Pantaleo case was clear from the amount of time they needed to make their decision, and it fueled anger among activists and Garner’s family.
“There is no reason both grand juries should be taking this long,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network organized rallies for Garner and Brown, said Nov. 19 as both panels continued their deliberations.
The presentation of so much evidence also drew criticism from legal experts, who said the material was sure to overwhelm jurors and make it more difficult for them to find reasonable cause to indict. Many critics in New York and in Ferguson also said prosecutors in high-profile cases involving police could not be counted on to ignore their own biases in favor of law enforcement and pursue charges against officers.
Donovan especially faced political ramifications from the Garner case. The 57-year-old Republican, who was elected district attorney in 2003, faces reelection next year and would benefit from the support of the police unions that said Pantaleo did nothing wrong.
When he convened the grand jury, Donovan said he would not let politics interfere in the case.
“A man has died,” he told the Staten Island Advance newspaper in August, after announcing the grand jury. “I don’t want anyone losing focus on that.”
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