A white New York City police officer was cleared Wednesday in the alleged chokehold death of an unarmed black man stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes — a case that sparked outrage and drew comparisons to the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
The decision by the Staten Island grand jury not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo threatened to add to the tensions that have simmered in the city since the July 17 death of Eric Garner. It also prompted Pantaleo's first public comments on the death.
“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can't protect themselves,” he said in the written statement. “It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to bring charges.
In the Staten Island neighborhood where Garner died, people reacted with shouts, chants of “Eric Garner” and expressions of angry disbelief. Garner's father, Benjamin Carr, urged calm and said the ruling made no sense.
The grand jury could have considered a range of charges, from murder to a lesser offense such as reckless endangerment.
“I am actually astonished based on the evidence of the videotape, and the medical examiner, that this grand jury at this time wouldn't indict for anything,” said a lawyer for Garner's family, Jonathan Moore.
Garner's family planned a news conference later in the day with the Rev. Al Sharpton.
A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the Internet showed the 43-year-old Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner's neck in what appeared to be a chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy.
The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, was heard repeatedly gasping, “I can't breathe!”
A second video surfaced that showed police and paramedics appearing to make no effort to revive Garner while he lay motionless on the ground. He later died at a hospital.
As with 18-year-old Michael Brown's death in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, the Garner case sparked protests, accusations of racist policing and calls for federal prosecutors to intervene. But unlike the Missouri protests, the demonstrations in New York remained mostly peaceful.
The case also prompted Police Commissioner William Bratton to order officers at the nation's largest police department to undergo retraining on use of force.
The medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. A forensic pathologist hired by Garner's family, Dr. Michael Baden, agreed with those findings, saying there was hemorrhaging on Garner's neck indicative of neck compressions.
Police union officials and Pantaleo's lawyer argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a banned chokehold, because Garner was resisting arrest and that his poor health was the main reason he died.
While details on the grand jurors were not disclosed, Staten Island is the most politically conservative of the city's five boroughs and home to many police and firefighters.
Donovan said the investigation was four months long and included 38 interviews and 22 witness accounts. The panel began hearing evidence in late September, including the video, autopsy results and testimony by Pantaleo.
Pantaleo had been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty while the case was under investigation. He is likely to remain on modified duty while the NYPD conducts an internal investigation that could result in administrative charges.
In anticipation of the announcement on the grand jury decision, police officials met with community leaders on Staten Island to head off a repeat of the response in Ferguson, where a grand jury decided not to indict the white officer who shot the black teen. Demonstrations there resulted in more than 100 arrests and destruction of 12 commercial buildings by fire.
Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled his planned appearance at the annual Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting to hold a news conference on Staten Island Wednesday afternoon.
“Today's outcome is one that many in our city did not want,” he said in a statement. “Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest.”