After the New York City medical examiner announced yesterday that Eric Garner died as a result of a chokehold, and called the Staten Island dad’s death a “homicide,” Mayor Bill de Blasio faces one of the most difficult decisions of his young mayoralty: Will he push for the prosecution of the officer whose chokehold killed Garner and risk alienating the police force, or will he let the cop walk free and risk alienating the Black community whose support swept him into office?
While early stories had suggested that Garner died at the hospital of a heart attack and police supporters claimed that his weight was the main reason for his death, the medical examiner’s office was clear, finding “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police” killed Garner—though the office did add that Garner’s obesity, diabetes, sleep apnea and asthma were contributing conditions to his death.
In ruling that the manner of death was homicide, the medical examiner is not offering any conclusions about whether Officer Daniel Pantaleo committed a crime when he put the 43-year-old Garner in a chokehold. The office is merely stating that Garner died at the hands of another person or persons.
But the findings from the coroner will place enormous pressure on de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan to bring charges against the officer, who has been stripped of his gun and badge.
Indeed, when de Blasio appeared at a City Hall press conference on Thursday, flanked by Bratton on one side and Rev. Al Sharpton on the other, Sharpton and Bratton disagreed on how the problem of cops still using the banned chokeholds might be corrected. Bratton suggested more training was in order; Sharpton had other ideas.
“You got to deal with training,” Sharpton said. “But I also think, commissioner, that the best way to make police stop using illegal chokeholds is to perp-walk one of them that did. . . . It will send a lesson that 10 training sessions will not give them.”
Indeed, New York police have known that chokeholds were banned for the last 20 years, but they continue to use them.
During the City Hall meeting, Sharpton directed a line at de Blasio—whose wife is Black and two children are biracial—that was blasted on the front page of the city tabloids yesterday:
“If Dante wasn’t your son, he’d be a candidate for a chokehold,” Sharpton told the mayor, referring to his biracial son, who has become famous for his large Afro. “And we’ve got to deal with that reality.”
Sharpton’s elevated status at City Hall was apparent at the meeting. Sharpton’s longtime press spokesperson, Rachel Noerdlinger, is now the chief of staff for de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, giving him unprecedented access to City Hall.
“I think that your ability to show some sensitivity is what raised hope and gave you the plurality that you got to become mayor,” Sharpton said. “But now, I think we’ve got to go from that hope to actuality.”
Bratton said that he would craft a budget proposal to retrain all 35,000 members of the NYPD, with a focus on the 20,000 cops who routinely work in the streets. He added that the training would take place a few days each year and cost “tens of millions of dollars” annually.
Sharpton was not pleased by comments previously made by Bratton that he did not think race played a role in Garner’s death.
“How do we assume, before an investigation, that a policeman with two civil rights violations didn’t have race involved?” Sharpton asked.
The website SILive.com revealed that Pantaleo had a suit filed against him on June 21, 2013, by Darren Collins and Tommy Rice, both of Staten Island. The men allege that Pantaleo and several other officers unlawfully stopped their car, searched them, handcuffed them and “subjected [them] to a humiliating and unlawful strip search in public view … [the officers] forced [Collins and Rice] to pull their pants and underwear down, squat and cough,” according to court documents.
Jason Leventhall, the attorney for Collins and Rice, told SiLive.com that the parties settled out of court for $30,000.
In the other suit filed in February, which is still pending, Rylawn Walker, also of Staten Island, alleged that Pantaleo “approached, accosted, falsely arrested and falsely imprisoned” him, despite the fact that Walker “had not committed any crime or offense and did not act in a suspicious manner.” Walker also alleged that “[p]articularly in Richmond County,” where Staten Island is located, [there] has been a pattern of abuse and false arrest by officers of the NYPD as evidenced by numerous lawsuits by persons of color.”
The mayor said he agreed with Sharpton about the need for change.
“I take Rev. Sharpton’s admonition to heart — the time is now,” de Blasio said. But the mayor also said that “the work of reform takes real intensity, real effort — and some real patience.”
And though Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, 65, told the Daily News after his death that she was relieved there were recordings of her son’s last moments, the PBA president even took issue with the video that showed the police killing Garner.
“Videotapes never present all of the facts in a situation,” Lynch said. “They present an isolated period of a police interaction, but never the entire scenario.”