WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department will conduct a federal investigation into the chokehold death of an unarmed black man after a grand jury in New York City declined to indict the white police officer who applied the move, Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday.
The investigation will look for potential civil rights investigations in the July 17 death of Eric Garner, 43, who was confronted by the officer on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A video shot by an onlooker showed Garner telling officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him and one then responded by wrapping his arm around Garner's neck in what appeared to be a chokehold.
Calling the death a "tragedy," Holder said it was one of "several recent incidents that have tested the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and protect." The death occurred weeks before the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, a case also under investigation by the Justice Department and in which a local grand jury last week also cleared an officer of wrongdoing. The cases together have contributed to a national discussion about use of excessive force by police and their treatment of minorities.
"This is not a New York issue or a Ferguson issue alone," Holder told reporters late Wednesday. "Those who have protested peacefully across our great nation following the grand jury's decision in Ferguson have made that clear."
Separately, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had spoken with Holder and Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the eastern district of New York who has been nominated as Holder's successor, and was told that the federal investigation into the death will now move forward.
The federal investigation was announced hours after a New York grand jury chose not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who remains on desk duty. The grand jury could have considered multiple charges, from murder to a lesser offense such as reckless endangerment, but Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said jurors found "no reasonable cause" to bring charges.
Chokeholds are banned under New York Police Department policy. But police union officials and Pantaleo's lawyer argued that the officer used a legal takedown move taught by the police department because Garner was resisting arrest. The medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it.
The Justice Department had been monitoring the outcome of the local investigation before announcing its own probe. That investigation will be similar to a separate federal one already underway into the Aug. 9 shooting death in Ferguson of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. A county grand jury in that case decided last week to not indict the white officer, Darren Wilson.
To mount a federal prosecution in police misconduct cases, officials have to satisfy an extremely difficult legal standard — that the officer willfully violated a victim's civil rights and used more force than the law allowed. Though the legal standard will be the same in both the Ferguson and New York cases, there are important differences between the two investigations, said William Yeomans, a former Justice Department civil rights official.
"One big difference, and one thing I think makes this an easier investigation, is the existence of videotape," Yeomans said. "We didn't have that in Ferguson, and we would know much more about what happened in Ferguson if we had."
He said that while he did not know all the facts in the case, an argument that the force was necessary seemed harder to reasonably make in Garner's death.
"(Garner) was helpless, and of course, in the videotape, you can hear him saying repeatedly, that he couldn't breathe," he said. "He was clearly not in any kind of threatening posture."
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