NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday promised a full investigation into a white New York police officer’s role in the choking death of an unarmed black man, following a night of protests over a grand jury decision not to bring charges in the incident.
More protests were expected on Thursday in New York. The grand jury’s decision on Wednesday came nine days after the news that a white officer in Missouri who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager would also not face criminal charges.
The New York officer, Daniel Pantaleo, could face disciplinary action from an internal probe, his lawyer said, adding that he expects that process to move quickly.
A departmental investigation will likely focus on whether he employed a chokehold, banned by New York Police Department regulations, contributing to the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner as officers arrested him in July.
The New York and Missouri cases have sparked sometimes violent protests around the country by demonstrators who say U.S. law enforcement and the criminal justice system are stacked against African Americans and other minorities.
Speaking in Cleveland, where he announced the Justice Department had found the police department in that city systematically engaged in excessive use of force, Holder said officials must do more to repair the trust between police officers and the communities they patrol.
Federal investigations into the Missouri and New York cases, which are ongoing, are not enough, said Holder, who is the country’s top law enforcement official.
The Cleveland investigation, which began in March 2013, gained added prominence after a Cleveland police officer last month shot dead a 12-year-old boy who was carrying what turned out to be a replica pellet gun on a playground.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January promising to improve relations between minority New Yorkers and police, told reporters on Thursday the city’s thousands of patrol officers would undergo extensive retraining.
“The relationship between police and community has to change,” he told a news conference. “People need to know that black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives.”
Stuart London, the police officer’s lawyer, said in an interview Thursday that Pantaleo testified to the grand jury that he never put pressure on Garner’s neck. Instead, Pantaleo said he used a proper takedown technique, London said.
That account was echoed by Patrick Lynch, the president of the patrolmen’s union, who called Pantaleo a “model” officer at a press conference on Thursday.
London said he expects the internal police review to conclude quickly, perhaps within weeks, and expressed confidence his client would be exonerated.
The city’s medical examiner has said police officers killed the 43-year-old Garner by compressing his neck and chest, adding that Garner’s asthma and obesity had contributed to his death.
Although chokeholds are technically banned by New York City police regulations, the 2,000-page patrol guide is vague about whether such use of force can be allowed in certain circumstances, said Maria Haberfeld, who heads John Jay College’s Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration.
That gray area, she said, may have influenced the grand jury and could play a role in determining whether Pantaleo faces departmental discipline.
A New York judge offered some basic details about the grand jury proceeding at the request of Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan. Justice Stephen Rooney said the panel heard from 50 witnesses and examined 60 exhibits in the course of nine weeks of deliberation.
Prosecutors instructed the jurors on New York’s statute that delineates when police officers are permitted to use force during an arrest, the judge added.
The panel’s decision sparked protests by hundreds of people who swarmed the streets in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday night, many chanting “I can’t breathe,” the same phrase Garner repeatedly gasped in a video captured by a bystander of the incident on a Staten Island sidewalk before his death. Police said on Thursday there had been 83 arrests.
People also demonstrated in other cities, including Oakland, Washington, D.C., Denver and Minneapolis.
Holder acknowledged on Thursday that the bar for bringing federal civil rights charges is high but said the Justice Department has met that standard when appropriate.
Michael Selmi, a professor at George Washington University and former litigator in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said announcing a federal investigation following a controversial state grand jury decision is a tool the Justice Department can use to ease tensions, though it rarely leads to a conviction.
He pointed to the federal investigation into the case of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who shot and killed unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in 2012, which has yet to be concluded.
Additional reporting by Laila Kearney, Frank McGurty, Sascha Brodsky and David Ingram in New York, Fiona Ortiz and Kim Palmer in Cleveland, David Bailey in Minneapolis and Daniel Wallis in Denver, Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone, Grant McCool and Frances Kerry