PRESIDENT Barack Obama and New York mayor Bill de Blasio will join forces to improve relations between police and minority communities, the White House announced on Thursday, after the two leaders discussed protests surrounding the death of Eric Garner.
There are growing questions about Obamaâ€™s response to a prominent set of police killings of unarmed black men and children that have raised questions about alleged discriminatory policing and impunity.
Obama has not visited any of the communities affected by the high-profile killings. They include Staten Island, where Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, and Ferguson, the St Louis suburb where Michael Brown was fatally shot by officer Darren Wilson.
In both cases, grand juries decided not to indict the police officers, prompting large â€“ and, in the case of Ferguson, violent â€“ protests. Nor has Obama visited Cleveland, Ohio, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police officer Timothy Loehmann.
â€œAs the president of the United States and as the mayor of its largest city, the two pledged to work together to help strengthen the trust and bond between law enforcement and the local communities that they serve,â€ White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
â€œThe two leaders also discussed how this is not just an issue for New York or Ferguson, Missouri, but a problem that extends to communities across the country.â€
In brief remarks on Thursday, Obama said he had spoken with De Blasio about the Garner case and added: â€œToo many Americans feel a deep unfairness when it comes to the gap between our professed ideals and how laws are applied on a day-to-day basis.â€
â€œBeyond the specific issue, that has to be addressed â€“ making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally â€“ there is a larger question of restoring a sense of common purpose.â€
Critics of Obama complain he has failed to implement concrete proposals. On Monday the president lamented how there have been â€œcommissions before, there have been task forces, there have been conversations, and nothing happensâ€.
Obamaâ€™s solution was the creation of another task force. He also resisted curtailing controversial federal programs that transfer military-grade weaponry to local police forces, which became an issue after the extremely forceful response to protests immediately after Brownâ€™s death. Earnest said the country should give â€œthe benefit of the doubtâ€ to Obamaâ€™s task force and evaluate its recommendations.
Democrats were united in their dismay at the decision not to indict Pantaleo and over the broader questions emerging about police accountability in the US.
One of the most forceful denunciations of the decision came from the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Marcia Fudge. â€œEven in the face of video footage, it appears justice will not be served for Mr Garner or his family,â€ she said.
â€œIn the span of two weeks, this nation seems to have heard one message loud and clear: there will be no accountability for taking black lives,â€ she said. â€œAs an American, it is growing increasingly difficult to believe that there is justice for all.â€
Republicans were split over the wisdom of the New York grand juryâ€™s decision and the existence of wider problems of discriminatory policing, which Obama and his attorney general Eric Holder argue persist in some communities across the country.
The Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, said he would â€œnot rule in or outâ€ the suggestion from one of his deputies, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, for congressional hearings.
â€œClearly both of these are serious tragedies that weâ€™ve seen in our society,â€ Boehner said about the Garner and Brown deaths. â€œI do think the American people deserve more answers about what really happened here and was our system of justice handled properly.â€
McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Republican conference, said in an MSNBC interview earlier on Thursday that the House should â€œabsolutelyâ€ hold hearings into the Garner case. â€œWe need to understand why this decision was made,â€ she said. â€œI would call for the House to have those hearings.â€
Staten Islandâ€™s Republican congressman, Michael Grimm, defended the grand juryâ€™s decision.
â€œThereâ€™s no question that this grand jury had an immensely difficult task before them, but I have full faith that their judgment was fair and reasoned and I applaud [district attorney Daniel] Donovan for overseeing this case with the utmost integrity.â€ Grimm, a former FBI agent, won re-election last month despite facing an imminent trial over federal indictments for fraud, charges he denies.
The most trenchant defence of Pantaleo came from the Republican New York representative Peter King. â€œI feel strongly the police officer should not have been indicted,â€ he said. He claimed that had Garner â€œnot had asthma and a heart condition or was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from thisâ€.
â€œI know people are saying that he said eleven times or seven times â€˜I canâ€™t breathe,â€™â€ King added in a CNN interview. â€œWell the fact is that if you canâ€™t breathe, you canâ€™t talk. If youâ€™ve ever seen people locked-up resisting arrest â€“ and Iâ€™ve seen it, and it has been white guys â€“ and theyâ€™re always saying â€˜Youâ€™re breaking my arm,â€™ â€˜Youâ€™re choking meâ€™ during this. So police hear that all the time.â€
Garner, a father of six, was arrested in July under suspicion of peddling untaxed â€œlooseâ€ cigarettes. Moments before he was apprehended, Garner told police: â€œEvery time you see me, you wanna harass me, you wanna stop me â€¦ Iâ€™m minding my business, officer.â€
An autopsy found Garner died as a result of the chokehold, compressions to the chest, and prone positioning during his restraint by police. The New York grand jury could have considered multiple charges, from murder to a lesser offense such as reckless endangerment, but the Staten Island district attorney, Daniel Donovan, said jurors found â€œno reasonable causeâ€ to bring charges.
Hours after the grand jury decision was made public, Holder announced a federal Department of Justice investigation into whether Garnerâ€™s civil rights were violated.
King, the son of a police officer, also rejected the notion there was a racial or civil rights dimension to Garnerâ€™s treatment by the NYPD and took aim at African Americans civil rights leaders representing the families of Garner, Brown and a string of other victims of alleged police brutality in recent months. The Rev Al Sharpton was among those who met with Obama at a White House meeting dealing with the fallout from unrest in Ferguson on Monday, along with law enforcement officials and clergy.
â€œPresident Obama, if heâ€™s serious about trying to bring racial peace to this country, the last thing he should be doing having Al Sharpton sit in the White House,â€ King said. â€œWhen he says that people in the African American community donâ€™t trust the police, one of the reason is because agitators like Al Sharpton are constantly criticising and attacking and denouncing the police.â€ – The Guardian