U.S. Plans Probe of New York Police Chokehold Death

The U.S. Justice Department will conduct a civil-rights investigation into the death of a black Staten Island man after a state grand jury cleared the white New York City police officer who held him in a chokehold.

Eric Garner’s July 17 altercation with police who stopped the 43-year-old on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes was recorded on video by a bystander. The images provoked outrage and calls for Officer Daniel Pantaleo to be charged.

Protesters gathered yesterday from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Times Square to decry the death, a reprise of rallies that swept the U.S. after a Missouri grand jury last week declined to indict an officer in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson. Both cases have highlighted racial divisions deepened by violent interactions between the justice system and black men.

“Mr. Garner’s death is one of several recent incidents across the country that have tested the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and protect,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington.

The Justice Department’s civil-rights division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York will lead the probe, he said. Loretta Lynch, that district’s top prosecutor, has been nominated to replace Holder, who announced his resignation in September.

“Our office has monitored this case closely,” she said in a statement. “The investigation will be fair and thorough, and it will be conducted as expeditiously as possible.”

Fundamental Task

New York officials sought to avert demonstrations like those in Ferguson, which turned violent, with shooting, looting, arson and vandalism.

“If you really want to dignify the life of Eric Garner, you will do so through peaceful protest, you will work relentlessly for change, you will not sully his name with violence or vandalism,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a nationally televised address from Staten Island, one of the city’s five boroughs.

De Blasio, who is married to a black woman, personalized the incident, recounting times he told his son to take “special care” when interacting with police. He said many black New Yorkers fear the very officers charged with protecting them.

“We are dealing with centuries of racism that has brought us to this day,” the mayor said. “That is how fundamental the task at hand is: to turn from that history and make a change that is profound and lasting.”

‘Can’t Breathe’

Garner died after plainclothes officers led by Pantaleo tried to handcuff him, forcing him to the ground. The video showed Pantaleo applying a chokehold, prohibited by department policy, Commissioner Bill Bratton has said. In the video, Garner repeatedly says, “I can’t breathe.”

A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, caused by compression of the neck and chest.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, the civil-rights activist, called for a protest in Washington on Dec. 13, saying at the headquarters of his National Action Network in Harlem that police violence is a national crisis.

“Here you have a man choked to death on videotape and he says 11 times ‘I can’t breathe,’” Sharpton said. “After 11 times of ‘I can’t breathe,’ when does your humanity kick in?”

Saying Sorry

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the city’s police union, said Pantaleo used a “take-down technique” learned in training.

“No police officer starts a shift intending to take another human being’s life,” Lynch said in a statement.

Pantaleo, 29, a lifelong Staten Island resident who’s been a New York Police Department officer for about eight years, said in a statement that he didn’t intend to harm anyone, and expressed condolences to the Garner family.

Garner’s widow, Esaw, didn’t accept them.

“He’s still working, he’s still getting a paycheck, he’s still feeding his kids, and I am looking for a way to feed my kids,” she said after Sharpton spoke. “Who is going to play Santa Claus for my grandkids this year?”

In Washington, President Barack Obama said that the U.S. has failed to address mistrust between minority communities and police.

“When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that is a problem,” Obama, the nation’s first black president, said in an address to the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference. “This is an American problem, and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem.”

Fiery Ferguson

The Justice Department has regularly investigated such deaths after local authorities have finished.

The agency is examining whether Officer Darren Wilson violated the civil rights of 18-year-old Michael Brown when he fatally shot him in Ferguson in August. It is conducting a broader inquiry into whether the 53-officer police force engaged in a pattern of abuse.

In one of the most high-profile cases, prosecutors brought civil-rights charges against four Los Angeles officers involved in the 1991 beating of Rodney King after they were acquitted in a state court. Two were convicted on the federal counts.

High Hurdle

U.S. prosecutors also brought civil-rights charges against Francis Livoti, a New York officer who killed a 29-year-old with a chokehold after an errant football hit his car. Livoti was convicted in 1998 and sentenced to more than seven years in prison.

The Justice Department probed the November 2006 killing of another unarmed man, Sean Bell, outside a Queens strip club, but closed the probe after finding insufficient evidence.

The law sets a high standard for civil-rights charges, said Randolph M. McLaughlin, a professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, New York.

“The prosecutor has to show that the police officer intended to deprive the victim of his constitutional rights, his civil rights,” McLaughlin said. “That’s a tough nut to crack.”

In New York, protests grew in size and intensity as the night went on.

At one afternoon demonstration in Staten Island, outside a police station on the borough’s Richmond Terrace, about two dozen officers outnumbered protesters. A man led participants in a chant shouting, “I can’t,” with the others responding “breathe!”

Superhero Flees

At Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, about 30 protesters lay silently on the ground holding signs saying “black lives matter” and “justice 4 Eric.”

After nightfall, crowds in the hundreds marched through midtown Manhattan amid stopped traffic, spanning two blocks and following a man with a white flag. One sign read: “Ferguson is Everywhere.” A Times Square street performer in a Spider-Man costume took off down a side street as the roving mass approached.

A swarm of protesters surrounded cars on the West Side Highway, while another briefly closed the Lincoln Tunnel, a major artery connecting New Jersey, shortly before midnight.

Where Garner died on Staten Island, outside Bay Beauty Supply, there were bouquets, lit candles and a sign saying, “No ruckus, just justis.”

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