Protests as choke death cop cleared

Published: Thursday 4th December 2014 by The News Editor

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Protests have broken out in New York City after a white police officer was cleared of blame over the chokehold death of an unarmed black man stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.

The decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo heightened tensions that have simmered in the city since the death of Eric Garner on July 17 . The videotaped arrest sparked outrage and has drawn comparisons to the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the neighbourhood where Mr Garner died, people reacted with angry disbelief and chanted: “I can’t breathe!” and “Hands up – don’t choke!”

In anticipation of yesterday’s announcement on the grand jury decision, police chiefs met community leaders on Staten Island to head off a repeat of the response in Ferguson, where a grand jury decided last week not to charge the white officer who shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Demonstrations there resulted in more than 100 arrests and 12 commercial buildings were burned down.

US president Barack Obama said the Pantaleo grand jury decision underscored the need to strengthen the trust and accountability between communities and police. The US Justice Department will conduct a investigation into 43-year-old Mr Garner’s death, attorney general Eric Holder said.

While not commenting on the decision specifically, Mr Obama said there were “too many instances where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly”.

As with 18-year-old Mr Brown’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.

Mr Garner’s stepfather, Benjamin Carr, urged calm but said the ruling made no sense.

“It’s just a licence to kill a black man,” he said, calling the justice system “not worth a damn”.

In his first public comments on the death, Officer Pantaleo has said he prays for Mr Garner’s family and hopes they accept his condolences.

The police union and Officer Pantaleo’s lawyer said he used a recognised police takedown move, not a banned technique, because Mr 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. It could have considered a range of charges, from murder to a lesser offence 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 Jonathan Moore, a lawyer for Mr Garner’s family.

The family held a news conference with civil rights leader the Rev Al Sharpton and New York mayor Bill de Blasio cancelled his planned appearance at the annual Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree lighting to speak at a Staten Island church as city-wide protests started to gather steam.

“Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want,” he saidt. “Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through non-violent protest.”

A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the internet showed Mr Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. Officer Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Mr Garner’s neck in what appeared to be a chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy.

Heavy-set Mr 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 Mr Garner while he lay motionless on the ground. He died later at a hospital.

After the grand jury decision, demonstrations began in the city. 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 New York police commissioner William Bratton to order officers in the nation’s largest police force to retrain on the use of force.

The coroner ruled Mr Garner’s death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. Dr Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist hired by Mr Garner’s family, agreed with those findings, saying there was haemorrhaging on Mr Garner’s neck which indicated 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.

Mr Donovan said he filed a court order to release information on the investigation.

Officer Pantaleo was stripped of his gun and badge and put on desk duty while the case was investigated. Mr Bratton said he would be suspended while the NYPD conducted an internal probe that could result in administrative charges.

Published: Thursday 4th December 2014 by The News Editor

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