NEW YORK (AP) — A grand jury cleared a white New York City police officer Wednesday in the videotaped chokehold death of an unarmed black man who had been stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, a lawyer for the victim’s family said.
The decision in Staten Island not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo threatened to add to the tensions that have simmered in the city since the July 17 death of Eric Garner — a case that sparked outrage and drew comparisons to the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Jonathan Moore, an attorney for Garner’s family, said he was told of the grand jury’s decision.
“I am actually astonished based on the evidence of the video tape, and the medical examiner, that this grand jury at this time wouldn’t indict for anything, is really just astonishing,” Moore said.
The Staten Island District Attorney’s office didn’t immediately respond to a call. There was no immediate comment from Pantaleo’s attorney nor the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a union that has strongly backed the officer.
The grand jury could have considered a range of charges, from murder to a lesser offense such as reckless endangerment.
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 an apparent 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 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. The case also 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.
Police union officials and Pantaleo’s lawyer have argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a chokehold, because he was resisting arrest and that Garner’s poor health was the main reason he died.
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. The panel began hearing evidence in late September, including the video, autopsy results and testimony by Pantaleo.
Pantaleo had been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty while the case was under investigation. He is likely to remain on modified duty while the NYPD conducts an internal investigation 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 turned violent, resulting in more than 100 arrests and destruction of 12 commercial buildings by fire.
The last officer to be indicted in the death of a civilian was Richard Haste, charged in the February 2012 killing of Ramarley Graham in the Bronx. Graham was shot in a tiny bathroom in the three-family home where he lived with his grandmother. He was chased there by Haste who believed he was selling drugs.
Haste said he fired his weapon because he thought he was going to be shot. But no weapons were found in the apartment.
The officer was indicted on manslaughter charges in the summer of 2012, but the charges were dismissed by a judge who said prosecutors improperly instructed the grand jurors. A second grand jury decided not to re-indict the officer.