When the New York City Medical Examiner on Friday called the death of Eric Garner a homicide by police chokehold, the ruling immediately put all eyes on Staten Island prosecutors now facing pressure to level serious charges against New York Police Department officers whom colleagues say were just doing their job in a dangerous situation.
Despite the chokehold being barred by the NYPD for its asphyxiation risks in 1993, the tactic has been used hundreds of times since 2009 alone, according to citizen complaints. Mr. Garner, whose breathing and weight issues also played a role in his death, according to the medical examiner, was a father of six and grandfather of two. He died on July 17 after a struggle with police.
At a rally Saturday morning in Harlem, Esaw Garner, Mr. Garner's widow, demanded that prosecutors take the case to a grand jury immediately. "I just want them to do the right thing and get justice for my husband," she said, adding that she hopes "we can move forward and get this cop done with."
The backdrop to the Garner homicide ruling is Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign promise to improve the tense relationship between the NYPD and the city’s poorer neighborhoods, which have been the focus of a long-running policy of targeting penny-ante crimes in order to deter more serious crimes.
"I've said that we would make change, and we will," Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, said this week.
For many in the city, the treatment of Garner – who had a long rap sheet of small-time crimes like marijuana possession and selling untaxed cigarettes by the piece – epitomizes the problems with the so-called “broken windows” policing approach.
Statistics show that the city’s poorer residents, unfairly or not, bear the brunt of tough police tactics, which in turn breeds class and race resentment. “They don’t put bankers in chokeholds,” is a common street refrain.
Though arrest statistics suggest that minorities commit more crimes, others point to statistics that show that 85 percent of marijuana arrests in the city are minorities. Studies show that whites smoke more pot than any other group.
To be sure, the “broken windows” approach, launched by former GOP Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the early 1990s, has been extraordinarily effective in combating New York street crime, but critics say that the program may have run its course. Some cite a spike in the number of arrests of street performers as evidence that the Police Department’s priorities are skewed.
Given all that, the homicide ruling will put enormous pressure on prosecutors to level murder or manslaughter charges against those shown in the video.
"I knew that [homicide] was the cause because I saw it," Ramsey Orta, a friend who videotaped the Garner confrontation, told the media. "Now somebody should get charged."
Much of the focus has been on Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Garner in the chokehold after he complained that the officers were hassling him. He’s the officer who keeps applying pressure when Garner repeatedly complains that, “I can’t breathe.” The veteran officer has been involved in two civil rights lawsuits in the last year where plaintiffs alleged he engaged in brutal and racially motivated arrests.
Bu while prosecutors will face immense pressure to bring evidence to a grand jury, the influential Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has warned residents to not judge the officers too harshly, noting that Garner’s poor health was also noted by the medical examiner as part of the cause of death.
Despite the use of the illegal hold by Officer Pantaleo, “[w]e believe … that if [Garner] had not resisted the lawful order of the police officers placing him under arrest, this tragedy would not have occurred," said Patrick Lynch, the association president.
Six professionals – four medical workers and two police officers – involved have been punished administratively for their response, and de Blasio has called for a full retraining of the city’s 35,000 police officers, the nation’s largest force.