Eric Garner death after police chokehold roils N.Y.C. minority communities

The apparent use of a police chokehold on New Yorker Eric Garner, who later died, has further strained NYPD relations with the city's minority residents. The incident is a test for new Mayor Bill de Blasio.

John Minchillo/AP
A memorial for Eric Garner rests on the pavement Saturday near the site where police forced him to the ground in the Staten Island borough of New York City. Police arrested Mr. Garner on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said.

Deep rifts between the New York Police Department and the city's minority neighborhoods widened further this weekend after a black man, put into a chokehold barred by police policy for at least two decades, died in police custody last week after an arrest for a petty crime.

The man, Eric Garner, a married father of six and a grandfather of two, was allegedly seen selling “loosies,” or single cigarettes commonly peddled for up to a buck in poor neighborhoods. Two plainclothes cops in Kevlar vests, along with a number of uniformed officers, wrestled the 350-pound man to the ground, as he repeatedly gasped, “I can’t breathe.”

Most of the incident was captured by several onlookers who video-recorded the arrest and its aftermath from a number of perspectives. Most disturbing are those of the arrested man lying motionless on the sidewalk, his hands handcuffed behind his back, his eyes unblinking, while police officers and emergency medical services (EMS) workers stood over him without providing CPR or any other assistance.

Two New York City police officers, including the man alleged to have put Mr. Garner in the chokehold, have been placed on desk duty this week, and four emergency workers have been restricted from responding to 911 calls as the district attorney and police internal affairs unit begin to investigate Garner’s death, officials said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the longtime civil rights activist who heads the National Action Network in Manhattan, led hundreds marching in protest in the borough of Staten Island over the weekend, as community anger mounted.

“This is going to be a real test to see where policies are in the city now and whether the change that we feel has occurred, has occurred,” the Rev. Mr. Sharpton said at the rally. 

Such changes in policy are a reference to the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who won a record landslide victory last fall after campaigning with a pledge to improve the relationship between the NYPD and minority communities.

On Sunday, Sharpton continued to speak out against Garner’s death during a sermon at the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, where he put pressure on the mayor and Police Commissioner William Bratton.

“Twenty years ago the mayor’s name was [Rudolph] Giuliani. The commissioner’s name was Bratton,” Sharpton told the congregation, which included US Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York. “Twenty years later, the mayor’s name is de Blasio. The commissioner’s name is Bratton. There’s a lot different, 20 years later. Yet we will see a lot remains the same.”

Just over a half-year into Mayor de Blasio’s tenure, tensions have remained vexed between the NYPD and the city's black and Latin communities. Last summer, controversies over the police department’s aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics under the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Commissioner Raymond Kelly dominated the headlines. 

De Blasio was one of the few mayoral candidates to rail against the practice, promising to revamp police policies and – most important, he said again and again – improve the relationship between cops and minorities.

Now, Garner’s death has put these efforts in jeopardy and reminded the black community of a number of high-profile police custody deaths from decades past, including from chokeholds.

“This has really been one of our priorities, if not our priority, is to change, not necessarily the culture at [the NYPD], but also change the way we interact with the community and the way people see us,” said Marco Carrion, commissioner for the Community Assistance Unit, who represented the de Blasio administration at Sharpton’s rally on Saturday.

But critics continue to fault the tactics used by Bratton, who helped revolutionize urban policing more than two decades ago during his first tenure as head of the NYPD. 

Bratton maintains a steady belief in the “broken windows theory” of policing, directing police to focus on minor, petty crimes – such as selling “loosies” on the street. This creates a sense of law and order on the streets, according to the theory, which in turn helps prevent more serious crimes.

Though serious crime has continued to fall citywide, a recent spike in nonfatal shootings in the city’s public housing units this year has led Bratton to reassign as many as 400 desk officers to street beats for the next three months, in a program the department calls “Summer All Out.”

Garner, who had a history of penny-ante arrests, was already scheduled to appear in court this October after being charged with possessing marijuana and selling cigarettes illegally. The videos of Garner’s arrest reveal officers employing a violent chokehold – a technique Bratton said is “prohibited” – as well a seeming indifference to the man as he lay motionless on the ground.

“C’mon, guy,” one cop says to Garner, slapping at the large man’s shoulders as he lay motionless on the sidewalk, his eyes bulging. “Breathe in, breathe out.” Garner does not respond as several cops stand over him.

Minutes later, a female EMS officer stands over him. “Sir, it’s EMS. Come on. We’re gonna help, alright?”

“Why’s nobody doin’ CPR?” asks an onlooker, outside the video’s frame, as six officers grab the man and put his slumped body on a stretcher. “Cuz he’s breathin,’ ” a cop says, looking back. Garner was declared dead on arrival at a nearby hospital.

The camera then pans over to Officer Daniel Pantaleo, identified as the police officer who put Garner in the chokehold. Officer Pantaleo notices the video, mentions it to another officer, and then waves his hand sarcastically toward the person shooting the video.

Pantaleo has been the subject of at least two civil rights lawsuits against the NYPD this year, which allege the eight-year veteran engaged in racially motivated, brutal arrests. One case was settled for $30,000 in January, and another is ongoing. This weekend, Pantaleo was stripped of his gun and badge and assigned to desk duty.

“I’ve heard what is needed is more police training,” said Bishop Victor Brown during a sermon at Mount Sinai United Christian Church in Staten Island, a few blocks from where Garner died. “The police get enough training; a mind-set is the issue. Enough is enough. Stop killing our people.”

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