NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York police union leader denied on Tuesday that officers used a choke hold while trying to arrest a Staten Island man who later died, saying the coroner's finding in the case was politically motivated.
"This was not a choke hold," Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said at a press conference, referring to a July 17 incident in which Eric Garner, who was accused of selling illegal cigarettes, died in a scuffle with police.
"It was a big man who had to be brought to the ground to be placed under arrest by shorter police officers," Lynch said.
Videos recorded on bystanders' phones showed Garner, a 43-year-old black man who was asthmatic and diabetic, being tackled by police outside a Staten Island beauty parlor.
Police said Garner, who weighed 350 pounds (159 kg) and was 6 feet 3 inches tall (1.9 meters), was resisting arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. Police said Garner had been previously arrested on similar charges.
The New York City medical examiner ruled on Aug. 1 that the death of Garner, the father of six, was a homicide caused by "compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police." Contributing conditions were listed as acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.
Choke holds are prohibited by the New York City Police Department. No police officers have been charged in Garner's death.
At the press conference, Lynch criticized the medical examiner's report as "a political document not backed up by the ME’s scientific report,” Lynch said.
A spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office, Julie Bolcer, said the report was based on an "independent scientific investigation."
"We stand by our findings," Bolcer said in a statement.
Lynch said the city's police officers feel they lack the full support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January promising to end more aggressive police tactics such as the so-called "stop and frisk" program under which officers conducted random pat-downs.
A federal judge ruled that the tactic violated the constitutional rights of black and Latino men, who were most frequently stopped and frisked.
“I think the mayor needs to support New York City police officers unequivocally," Lynch said. "And unequivocally say resisting arrest hurts everyone: police officers and citizens alike, and it will not be tolerated."
De Blasio said he had "immense respect for the men and women of the NYPD" and would not "let the rhetoric of union leaders" disrupt crime fighting.
"It’s a very tough job and they do it very, very well. This is why crime is down over 3 percent this year," de Blasio said.
Lynch sharply criticized the inclusion of Reverend Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, at a City Hall roundtable discussion of Garner's death, during which the civil rights leader suggested race factored into the way Garner was handled by police.
“It is outrageously insulting to all police officers to say that we go out on our streets to choke people of color, as Al Sharpton stated while seated at the table, right next to our mayor at City Hall," Lynch said.
Sharpton on Tuesday renewed his call for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Garner's death.
"We will continue to pursue a fair federal investigation to determine where the facts lie and to advocate for policies that do not enforce policing differently according to zip code," Sharpton said in a statement.