America is suffering from déjà vu: an unarmed black man is killed by a white police officer and a grand jury, meeting in secret, chooses not to indict. Just nine days after the decision not to charge Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a New York grand jury has declined to indict another officer who was filmed choking an unarmed black man to death.
Eric Garner, who was 43, died on 17 July during an attempted arrest on a Staten Island pavement, after New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold – a move forbidden by the NYPD. Thousands took to the streets of New York and several other US cities on Wednesday night to protest the decision not to bring charges against the officer.
The verdict comes less than a fortnight since a grand jury in St Louis announced it would not indict Officer Darren Wilson in the 9 August killing of Mr Brown, who was 18. It triggered protests across the US and has stoked widespread public anger over the victimisation of black men by police.
The precise details of Mr Brown’s death remain unclear, due to conflicting witness testimony and inconclusive forensic evidence. Yet the incident on Staten Island was captured on video. Mr Garner, who had six children, was confronted by plainclothes officers and accused of illegally selling cigarettes. He denied the accusation, complained of repeated harassment by police, and resisted the officers’ attempts to put his hands behind his back.
Though Mr Garner was unarmed and did not lash out, Officer Pantaleo testified to the grand jury that he put an arm around his neck in a “wrestling move”, designed to unbalance and subdue Mr Garner, who was 6ft 3in and weighed 350lb (159kg). The NYPD banned the use of chokeholds by its officers in 1993, after the tactic was blamed for the deaths of multiple suspects. Mr Garner, who was asthmatic, complained several times that he could not breathe during the struggle, which was recorded by his friend, Ramsey Orta. He died an hour later.
In August, the New York City medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, caused by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Yet the 23-person grand jury disagreed by an undisclosed majority, deciding that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges.
Officer Pantaleo, 29, remains on suspension pending an internal investigation of the incident, and it is unclear whether he will return to duty. It emerged after Mr Garner’s death that Officer Pantaleo had also been the subject of two previous civil rights lawsuits for false arrests, one of which ended with a $30,000 (£19,000) settlement to the plaintiff from the authorities.
In a statement, Officer Pantaleo said: “I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves. 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.”
Mr Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, responded by telling NBC: “The time for remorse was when my husband was yelling to breathe. That would have been the time for him to show some remorse or some type of care for another human being’s life.”
Eric Holder, the outgoing US Attorney General, announced on Wednesday that the Justice Department, which is already investigating the Ferguson shooting, was also conducting a federal probe into Mr Garner’s death to determine whether his civil rights had been violated. President Barack Obama said he and Mr Holder were leading an effort to improve relations between the black community and law enforcement officers, including better training for police.
“This is an American problem and not just a black problem or a brown problem,” said Mr Obama. “When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law that’s a problem and it’s my job as president to help solve it.”
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton promised his officers would be retrained in the use of force following Mr Garner’s death. Speaking after the grand jury decision on Wednesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had warned his own teenage son, who is black, about dealing with the police. “Because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him – as families have all over this city for decades – in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him,” he said.
The mostly peaceful protests over Mr Garner’s death on Wednesday and Thursday were a continuation of those that erupted in the wake of last week’s grand jury decision in Ferguson, which sparked two nights of riots in the fractious St Louis suburb. Protesters vowed a new round of demonstrations in New York, and national civil rights leaders pledged to release a “2015 action plan” to address police accountability.
Meanwhile, the police officer who shot dead 12-year-old Tamir Rice in an Ohio park on 22 November will also face a grand jury investigation. Timothy Loehmann and another officer responded to a 911 call reporting “a guy” pointing a “probably fake” gun. The “guy” was Rice, who was black and had a pellet gun.