Grand jury doesn’t indict NYPD officer accused in chokehold death

AFP Photo / Timothy A. Clary
A New York City grand jury has decided not to indict the New York Police Department officer accused of killing a Staten Island man by putting him in an illegal chokehold. The NYPD is now preparing for more protests stemming from the decision.

The US Department of Justice will conduct an investigation of the killing, Reuters reported, citing an official.

Early Wednesday afternoon, CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post all reported that a grand jury declined to indict the officer.

Although the special grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the white officer accused of strangling Garner, who was black, the police department can still reprimand Pantaleo under a basic rule that loosely states if an officer does anything to embarrass the department, then they can be disciplined.

"It's sad if they take that position," Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, told Staten Island Live. "I'd be surprised and a bit disappointed if he was used as a political pawn to appease the community."

The incident occurred on July 17, when at least five New York Police Department officers took 43-year-old Eric Garner, a Staten Island father of six, to the ground in an attempted arrest on Staten Island. One put Garner in a chokehold that caused Garner – who suffered from asthma – to lose consciousness and reportedly go into cardiac arrest. He was declared dead at a nearby hospital.

In response to the decision, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called on those upset with the decision to protest peacefully and said the city continues to work on improving police-community relations.

“This is a deeply emotional day – for the Garner Family, and all New Yorkers," he said in a statement. "His death was a terrible tragedy that no family should have to endure. This is a subject that is never far from my family’s minds – or our hearts. And Eric Garner’s death put a spotlight on police-community relations and civil rights – some of most critical issues our nation faces today."

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama commented on the strained relationships between law enforcement and some minority communities, calling it "an American problem" and saying the administration will not let up until trust is strengthened.

"When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that's a problem," he said. "This is an issue that we've been dealing with too long and it’s time to make more progress than we've made."

Officer Pantaleo also released a statement.

“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves," Pantaleo said. "It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”

The Staten Island District Attorney’s Office convened the grand jury in September, but did not announced the list of potential charges against Pantaleo. But prosecutors outside the district told ABC News that the range could have included second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, felony assault or reckless endangerment. Legal experts and former prosecutors had said that, despite the medical examiner’s ruling the death a homicide, murder charges were unlikely, the New York Times reported.

The grand jury, made up of 23 people and led by a foreperson, voted on the various charges presented to them. A majority of the total ‒ meaning at least 12 jurors ‒ needed to agree on each charge in order to indict.

At the center of the deliberations was a witness video that captured much of the interaction between the police and the 350-lbs. man. The incident began when NYPD officers questioned Garner about selling untaxed cigarettes. According to Ramsey Orta, the 22-year-old who recorded the footage, Garner had just broken up a fight that took place in the area when police walked up and said they saw him selling cigarettes.

In the video, officers can be seen moving in to arrest Garner while he tells them not to touch him. At this point, Pantaleo ‒ a plainclothesman wearing cargo shorts and a baseball cap ‒ can be seen placing Garner in a chokehold from behind and multiple other officers moving in and helping to take him to the ground. Once down, an officer can be seen pressing Garner’s head against the pavement, with Garner yelling multiple times, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

Shortly afterwards, the man stops moving and stops responding.

The city’s medical examiner ruled Garner died as a result of the chokehold – a move which is banned by the NYPD – and declared his death a homicide. New Yorkers protested the violence employed by the officers in Garner’s death, as well as throughout the city after the autopsy was made public in August. When unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri by a police officer Darren Wilson three weeks after the New York City incident, the protests expanded to include Brown and the lives of others who have been killed by law enforcement.

Police in New York City began preparing for potential protests before the grand jury decision was announced.

"We, as you might expect, are planning accordingly," New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Bratton did not reveal how many officers were placed out on the streets ahead of the announcement, but he said that officers have been told to walk a fine line between allowing the protesters to express their anger while keeping public order.

"If they engage in criminal activity, such as vandalism ‒ actual crime ‒ they will be arrested, quite simply," he said. "But we have the ability to have a level of tolerancebreathing room, if you will."

There are at least two different demonstrations planned in lower Manhattan Wednesday, including appearances of Parents Against Police Brutality and protesters who say they are taking a stand against "the criminalization of our communities and militarization of the local enforcement agencies," ABC News reported.

Garner’s son Eric Snipes doesn’t think any protests in the city in the wake of the grand jury decision will rise to the level of those that occurred in Ferguson when the grand jury there declined to indict Wilson.

"It's not going to be a Ferguson-like protest because I think everybody knows my father wasn't a violent man and they're going to respect his memory by remaining peaceful," Eric Snipes told the New York Daily News. "It's not going to be like it was there.”

Pantaleo has been sued twice over the past two years for harassing people during arrests, costing the city $30,000 in a 2012 lawsuit, where he and other officers were accused of strip-searching two men, the Staten Island Advance reported.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, which looks into police abuse accusations, received 233 complaints regarding chokeholds in 2013 ‒ more than four percent of all excessive force complaints in New York, according to the Times.

The board has received charges of about 1,022 instances since 2009 in which New York Police Department (NYPD) officers were accused of using chokeholds. Use of such holds are prohibited by the NYPD’s patrol guidelines, which outline a chokehold as a “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.”