NEW YORK – A white New York City police officer was cleared Wednesday in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes â€” a case that sparked outrage and drew comparisons to the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
The decision by the Staten Island grand jury not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo heightened tensions that have simmered in the city since the July 17 death of Eric Garner. In the neighbourhood where Garner died, people reacted with angry disbelief and chanted, â€œI canâ€™t breathe!â€ and â€œHands up â€” donâ€™t choke!â€
In anticipation of the announcement on the grand jury decision, police officials met with community leaders on Staten Island to head off a repeat of the response in Ferguson, where a grand jury decided last week not to indict the white officer who shot the unarmed black teen. Demonstrations there resulted in more than 100 arrests and destruction of 12 commercial buildings by fire.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama said Wednesday evening that the grand jury decision underscores the need to strengthen the trust and accountability between communities and law enforcement. The US Justice Department will conduct a federal investigation into Garnerâ€™s death, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday evening.
As with 18-year-old Michael Brownâ€™s death, the Garner case sparked protests, accusations of racist policing and calls for federal prosecutors to intervene. But unlike the Missouri protests, the demonstrations in New York remained mostly peaceful.
Garnerâ€™s stepfather, Benjamin Carr, urged calm but said the ruling made no sense.
â€œItâ€™s just a license to kill a black man,â€ he said, calling the justice system â€œnot worth a damn.â€
In his first public comments on the death, Pantaleo said he prays for Garnerâ€™s family and hopes they accept his condolences.
Police union officials and Pantaleoâ€™s lawyer argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a banned manoeuvre, because Garner was resisting arrest. They said his poor health was the main reason he died.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the grand jury found â€œno reasonable causeâ€ to bring charges. The grand jury could have considered a range of charges, from murder to a lesser offense such as reckless endangerment.
â€œI am actually astonished based on the evidence of the videotape, and the medical examiner, that this grand jury at this time wouldnâ€™t indict for anything,â€ said a lawyer for Garnerâ€™s family, Jonathan Moore.
Garnerâ€™s family planned a news conference later in the day with civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton. Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled his planned appearance at the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting to hold a news conference at a Staten Island church while citywide protests started to gather steam.
â€œTodayâ€™s outcome is one that many in our city did not want,â€ he said in a statement. â€œYet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest.â€
A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the Internet showed the 43-year-old Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garnerâ€™s neck in what appeared to be a chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy.
The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, was heard repeatedly gasping, â€œI canâ€™t breathe!â€
A second video surfaced that showed police and paramedics appearing to make no effort to revive Garner while he lay motionless on the ground. He later died at a hospital.
After the grand jury decision came down, demonstrations began in the city. In Times Square a crowd of at least 200 people held signs saying, saying â€œBlack lives matter,â€ â€œFellow white people, wake upâ€ and â€œOnce again, no justice.â€
The case prompted Police Commissioner William Bratton to order officers at the nationâ€™s largest police department to undergo retraining on use of force.
The medical examiner ruled Garnerâ€™s death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. A forensic pathologist hired by Garnerâ€™s family, Dr. Michael Baden, agreed with those findings, saying there was haemorrhaging on Garnerâ€™s neck indicative of neck compressions.
While details on the grand jurors were not disclosed, Staten Island is the most politically conservative of the cityâ€™s five boroughs and home to many police and firefighters.
Donovan said he filed a court order to release information on the investigation.
Pantaleo had been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty while the case was under investigation. Bratton said Pantaleo would be suspended while the NYPD conducts an internal probe that could result in administrative charges.- AP