The controversial death of a New York City man who was placed in a chokehold by police was formally ruled a homicide Friday, a move that will almost certainly place the officers in front of a grand jury and heighten tensions between residents and the police department, city officials and policing experts said.
Eric Garner, 43, died after being placed in a chokehold that caused him to suffer neck and chest compressions during his arrest two weeks ago in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island, according to findings released by the New York City medical examiner's office. Garner's weight, chronic asthma and cardiovascular disease were listed as contributing factors.
On July 17, officers approached Garner and questioned him. He was believed to be selling untaxed cigarettes, a charge on which he had been arrested several times previously. Videos of the incident show that Garner repeatedly said he had done nothing wrong and asked the officers to leave him alone. As police tried to make an arrest, one of the officers placed his arm across Garner's throat and wrestled him to the ground. Garner can be heard repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe," while another officer presses his head against the sidewalk.
Two officers, Daniel Pantaleo and Justin D'Amico, face an internal investigation in connection with Garner's death. Pantaleo was placed on modified duty, meaning he was stripped of his gun and badge, while D'Amico was placed on desk duty.
"My administration will continue to work with all involved authorities, including the Richmond County district attorney, to ensure a fair and justified outcome," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.
Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Assn., issued a statement in support of Pantaleo and D'Amico, noting again that Garner's poor health and his refusal to submit to arrest may have played a role in his death.
"We believe, however, that if he had not resisted the lawful order of the police officers placing him under arrest, this tragedy would not have occurred," Lynch said.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York City chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the medical examiner's findings would almost certainly result in Pantaleo facing a grand jury. A spokesman for the NYPD declined to comment.
"This case has to go before the grand jury," she said. "When the medical examiner rules a case a homicide by chokehold, and the entire world has seen a video of the people responsible for the chokehold, the case is going before the grand jury."
Garner's family was expected to speak out Saturday during a rally in Harlem alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton and National Action Network members.
From 2009 to 2013, the police department received 1,022 complaints of officers using chokeholds, according to data tracked by the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board. But very few, just 1 out of 50 in the first six months of this year, have been substantiated, records show. Chokeholds are a violation of department policy, Police Comissioner William J. Bratton has said.
Garner's death is the latest wedge driven between New York City's police and its residents. In recent years, for example, the department has been accused of unfairly targeting minorities through its stop-and-frisk program.
For New York's freshman mayor, who loudly decried such tactics and promised police reform, the incident leaves him in a bind.
DeBlasio appointed Bratton as police commissioner to assure New Yorkers that he was tough on crime. But when Bratton last led the department during the 1990s, he embraced the "broken windows" model of policing, which focuses on petty crimes — such as selling untaxed cigarettes.
"'Broken windows' is diametrically opposed to the overall political project that De Blasio says he's engaged in," said Alex S. Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of a book on New York City policing. "But Bratton is still committed to this 'broken windows' approach."
The actions of the Richmond County Dist. Atty. Daniel Donovan will also play a major role in determining the long-term effect of Garner's death.
The NYPD has been implicated in a number of high-profile deaths and beatings, including those of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Anthony Baez. Officers were acquitted of state criminal charges in each case, although Officer Francis Livoti was later convicted of violating Baez's civil rights after placing him in a chokehold in 1994.
Vitale said if Donovan brings minimal charges against the officers involved, it could ignite a firestorm similar the ones that followed the Diallo and Bell verdicts.
Lieberman and other experts said that Garner's death and Friday's ruling will place increased scrutiny on recent promises made by De Blasio and Bratton to reform the department and retrain officers.
"It should be chastening to the police department that what the world saw on video was deemed homicide by the medical examiner," Lieberman said. "The need for thorough and effective retraining of police officers in New York City is essential."