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New York City Police Officer Won’t Face Criminal Charges in Eric Garner Death

December 4, 2014

New York City Police Officer Won’t Face Criminal Charges in Eric Garner Death

Garner Died in July After Being Restrained in an Alleged Police Chokehold

Protests erupted around New York City after a grand jury on Wednesday declined to indict a police officer in the death of an unarmed African-American. The ruling also sparked a federal investigation.

The grand jury’s decision outraged many New York elected officials, and city leaders called for calm as protesters marched through Manhattan, denouncing the death of Eric Garner, 43 years old, who died after being held in an apparent police chokehold on July 17 in the borough of Staten Island.

The ruling comes roughly two weeks after Ferguson, Mo., reacted violently to another grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer in the death of another black man.

The decision also elicited a quick reaction from President Barack Obama , who said Mr. Garner’s death “speaks to the larger issues” of trust between police and civilians. He renewed a vow to repair police-community relations.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday night that the Justice Department would launch an “independent, thorough, fair, and expeditious” civil rights probe into Mr. Garner’s death. The department had been monitoring the local investigation of the case.

“His death of course was a tragedy. All lives must be valued,” the attorney general said, acknowledging that some are “disappointed and frustrated” by the grand jury decision. He added that “we must seek to heal the breakdown in trust that we have seen” between law enforcement and minority communities.

A widely circulated video of Mr. Garner’s final moments showed the white officer, Daniel Pantaleo, with his arm wrapped around Mr. Garner’s neck, wrestling him to the ground in an attempt to arrest him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.

Mr. Garner could be heard saying, “I can’t breathe.” His death was ruled a homicide, and New York Police Department officials have said the chokehold technique is banned, but not illegal.

Protesters fanned out across New York City. Other demonstrations erupted elsewhere around the country after the grand jury’s decision, which comes a little more than a week after a grand jury in Missouri declined to indict a white police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, in August. Violent clashes with police, widespread looting and arson erupted following the Brown grand jury’s Nov. 24 decision not to indict Mr. Wilson.

Large numbers of police officers worked to keep hundreds of protesters—chanting “I can’t breathe”—from disrupting the annual tree-lighting ceremony in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. As of 9 p.m., about 32 people had been arrested, said NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis.

Protesters closed down part of the West Side Highway near 50th Street, flooded Times Square and disrupted commuters at Grand Central Terminal.

Police made several arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge early Thursday morning when hundreds of protesters flooded the roadway and temporarily stopped traffic.

In downtown Washington, D.C., scores of protesters blocked traffic on Connecticut Avenue on Wednesday evening, chanting “This is what democracy looks like” and other slogans. They then moved north to DuPont Circle, trailed by police vehicles.

Mayor Bill de Blasio went to Staten Island and called for calm, citing the wishes of Mr. Garner’s family. “If you really want to dignify the life of Eric Garner, you will do so through peaceful protest; you will work relentlessly for change,” he said.

Mr. Holder, who has announced he will step down after a successor is confirmed, will travel to five more cities in coming weeks, as part of the Obama administration’s effort to repair relationships between police and minority communities.

Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., is Mr. Obama’s choice to replace Mr. Holder. Her office is overseeing the federal probe of the Garner case, which could complicate her nomination. Confirmation hearings for Ms. Lynch aren’t expected to begin until next year, and it is unclear how long her office will take to investigate the Garner matter.

Emotions ran high Wednesday, as New Yorkers voiced a mixture of anger and frustration.

“It’s just like getting a knife and stabbing my heart,” said Mr. Garner’s stepfather, Benjamin Carr at the site on Staten Island where Mr. Garner was arrested. “It’s just a license to kill a black man.”

Family and friends said Mr. Garner was married with six children and two grandchildren. He has a criminal record that includes more than 30 arrests dating back to 1980 on charges such as assault, resisting arrest and grand larceny. An official said the charges include several incidents in which he was arrested for selling unlicensed cigarettes.

In a statement released shortly after the grand jury decision was announced, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan expressed condolences to Mr. Garner’s family and laid out his office’s investigation into Mr. Garner’s death, which he said spanned four months.

More than 38 interviews were conducted, and 22 civilian witnesses reported to have seen some part of the interaction between Mr. Garner and the police, Mr. Donovan said.

“Clearly, this matter was of special concern in that an unarmed citizen of our County had died in police custody,” Mr. Donovan said of his August decision to impanel a special grand jury to hear the case.

The grand jury had been hearing witnesses since September. Mr. Pantaleo testified before the grand jury on Nov. 21, his lawyer, Stuart London, said.

Mr. Donovan said he was seeking a court order allowing him to release “specific information” in connection with the Garner investigation. Grand jury information typically is restricted from public view by New York law.

In a rare public comment issued through his union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Officer Pantaleo, an eight-year veteran, said: “It is never my intention to harm anyone, and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.”

Officer Pantaleo, who was placed on desk duty and stripped of his badge and gun following the incident, will remain on modified duty pending the outcome of an internal NYPD probe.

Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said Officer Pantaleo didn’t use a chokehold but a “take down technique that he learned in the academy.”

NYPD officials and the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner have called the move an apparent chokehold.

An autopsy determined Mr. Garner’s health history, including asthma, obesity and heart disease, contributed to his death.

Staten Island has a higher density of whites than elsewhere in New York state, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data—77.6% compared with 70.9%—and is home to many New York City police and other government workers. Blacks make up 11.8% of the borough’s population, compared with 17.5% statewide.