NEW YORK (AP & WISH) — 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 — 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 neighborhood where Garner died, people reacted with angry disbelief and chanted, “I can’t breathe!” and “Hands up — don’t choke!”
His stepfather, Benjamin Carr, urged calm but said the ruling made no sense.
“It’s just a license to kill a black man,” he said, calling the justice system “not worth a damn.”
Indianapolis 10-Point Coalition leader Rev. Charles Harrison also spoke out after the decision.
“Many leaders in the black community are now advocating cameras on police officers, but here you have a case where it was video taped and it still didn’t produce an indictment. So the question is probably going to be, will there by anything that can get a police officer indicted when an unarmed African-American dies in their custody,” Rev. Harrison said. “People have the right to express their protests, but you know we cannot do it in a violent way and we have to keep working at this. We have to keep workings, we have to keep talking, like we have done here in Indianapolis particularly over the last decade to deal with these issues.”
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In his first public comments on the death, Pantaleo said he prays for Garner’s family and hopes they accept his condolences.
“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” he said in the written statement. “It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.”
Police union officials and Pantaleo’s lawyer argued that the officer used a take-down move taught by the police department, not a banned maneuver, 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 “no reasonable cause” to bring charges. The grand jury could have considered a range of charges, from murder to a lesser offense such as reckless endangerment.
“I am actually astonished based on the evidence of the videotape, and the medical examiner, that this grand jury at this time wouldn’t indict for anything,” said a lawyer for Garner’s family, Jonathan Moore.
Garner’s family planned a news conference later in the day with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled his planned appearance at the annual Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting to hold a news conference at a Staten Island church while citywide protests started to gather steam.
“Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want,” he said in a statement. “Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest.”
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 Garner’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, “I can’t breathe!”
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.
As with 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, 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.
After the grand jury decision came down, several dozen demonstrators at the site of the arrest scattered cigarettes on the ground in homage to Garner, and lit candles.
“Cold-blooded murder!” said Jennie Chambers, who works nearby and saw Garner daily. “We saw it on TV, it’s on video. The whole world saw it. Ferguson, now us.”
Daniel Skelton came from Rahway, New Jersey, after hearing the news.
“I’m tired of the police harassment and killing of innocent African-American men,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of evil police officers hiding behind the good of the badge.”
In Times square a crowd of at least 200 people held signs saying, saying “Black lives matter,” ”Fellow white people, wake up” and “Once again, no justice.”
The case prompted Police Commissioner William Bratton to order officers at the nation’s largest police department to undergo retraining on use of force.
The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. A forensic pathologist hired by Garner’s family, Dr. Michael Baden, agreed with those findings, saying there was hemorrhaging on Garner’s neck indicative of neck compressions.
While details on the grand jurors were not disclosed, Staten Island is the most politically conservative of the city’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.
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 not to indict the white officer who shot the black teen. Demonstrations there resulted in more than 100 arrests and destruction of 12 commercial buildings by fire.