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Rallies In NYC After Grand Jury Refuses To Indict Officer In Chokehold Death

By Tina Susman and James Queally, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK — A grand jury Wednesday opted not to indict a white policeman in the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man whose last words — “I can’t breathe” — became a rallying cry for protesters who blamed his death on racial profiling and police abuse.

The decision, coming nine days after a Missouri grand jury declined to charge a white officer in the death of Michael Brown, drew swift reactions that reflected the passions that have increasingly surrounded such cases across the country.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other officials, anxious to avoid the violence that erupted in Ferguson after Officer Darren Wilson walked free, urged calm as activists called for demonstrators to converge at Times Square, Rockefeller Center and other landmarks.

De Blasio, whose wife is black, invoked their teenage son, Dante, and said his heart went out to Garner’s family.

“This is a subject that is never far from my family’s minds,” de Blasio said. “I’ve had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers he may face” and the special care he should take in his interactions with police.

President Barack Obama said the case “speaks to the larger issues that we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year and, sadly, for decades, and that is the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.”

“It’s time for us to make more progress than we’ve made,” Obama said. “I’m not interested in talk; I’m interested in action.”

Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, died July 17 during an altercation that began when several police officers tried to arrest him on suspicion of selling illegal cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. An onlooker’s video showed one officer, Daniel Pantaleo, locking his arm around Garner’s neck in what appeared to be a chokehold.

“I can’t breathe,” Garner gasped several times as other officers piled on him. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide due to compression of the neck and chest, but the 23-member grand jury did not find reasonable cause to indict Pantaleo.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called the jurors’ decision shocking. “The death of Eric Garner is a tragedy that demands accountability,” she said. “Nobody unarmed should die on a New York City street corner for suspected low-level offenses.”

Gillibrand and fellow Sen. Charles E. Schumer, both Democrats, called for a Justice Department investigation. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he was opening a federal inquiry that would be “thorough, fair and expeditious.”

“This is not a New York issue nor a Ferguson issue alone,” he said. “We must seek to heal the breakdown in trust that we have seen.”

The grand jury’s decision shocked many New Yorkers because of the graphic video that showed Garner falling to the ground and struggling to breathe as Pantaleo held on to him. But the police officers’ union said Garner’s obesity and other health problems contributed to his death. It said that Pantaleo did not use a chokehold and that Garner caused the altercation by resisting arrest.

Pantaleo, 29, who was stripped of his gun and badge after Garner died, issued a brief statement through the union. “I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves. It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner,” he said. “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.”

Pantaleo remains the subject of an internal NYPD investigation. It was not clear whether he would return to duty.

Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, rejected Pantaleo’s condolences.

“Hell, no. … My husband is 6 feet under, and I’m looking for a way to feed my kids now,” she said at an evening news conference at the Harlem headquarters of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, said she was “truly disappointed” by the grand jury, but urged protesters “to rally in peace.”

Demonstrators took to the streets of New York and major cities across the country, including Philadelphia; Atlanta; Oakland, Calif.; San Francisco and Washington, D.C., blocking traffic and staging “die-ins.” There were some arrests, including 30 in New York, police said, but the protests were largely peaceful.

De Blasio quickly rearranged his Wednesday evening schedule, which had included presiding over the annual lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, and headed to Staten Island to try to calm protesters.

“Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want. Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest,” said de Blasio, who took office in January with promises to mend relations between black and Latino communities and police.

The Garner case won’t help in his quest. Neither will the shooting death last month of an unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, by a policeman patrolling a Brooklyn housing project. Police Commissioner William J. Bratton called Gurley’s shooting a tragic accident, but activists have said it is another example of police being overly aggressive toward African-Americans.

Grand jury proceedings by law are secret, so it is impossible to know what swayed the panel’s decision. The district attorney in Staten Island, Daniel Donovan, said he had asked for a court order to make public “specific information” in connection with the jurors’ investigation. Donovan said more than 38 interviews were conducted with 22 witnesses, including first-responders and forensic experts, during the investigation.

Legal experts say it is always challenging to get indictments of uniformed law enforcement officers because of jurors’ tendency to trust their word against others’, and because prosecutors who work alongside police run grand jury proceedings and control what evidence jurors see and hear.

Even in cases where video appears to work against police, as in the 1991 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, civilians often find it difficult to believe the officers responsible for protecting them could be guilty of wrongdoing. The LAPD officers were charged in the beating but acquitted, triggering the 1992 riots.

But Candace McCoy, a former criminal and civil attorney who is now a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said she was floored by the grand jury’s failure to indict Pantaleo. She rejected the police union’s contention that he did not use a chokehold, which has been banned by the NYPD since 1993, and said Pantaleo’s use of the tactic was tantamount to negligent manslaughter.

“This officer was told specifically by his department not to use the kind of force that was used,” McCoy said. “This is a situation in which, basically, this officer in New York was rogue.”

But McCoy said it would be difficult to bring federal charges against Pantaleo unless there was evidence proving he targeted Garner because of his race.

William Yeomans, an American University law professor who formerly led the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said the “gut-wrenching” video would help prosecutors, as would the chokehold.

The decision also angered activists in the Ferguson area. Michael T. McPhearson, a retired U.S. Army captain and co-chairman of the Don’t Shoot Coalition in St. Louis County, said, “It’s just another insult to injury.”
___
Susman reported from New York and Queally from Los Angeles. Staff writer Timothy M. Phelps contributed from Washington.

Photo: The decision by a New York grand jury not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, sparked mass protests in Los Angeles and several other cities on December 3, 2014 (AFP/David McNew)

Federal Monitor Ordered For Newark Police For Civil Rights Violations

By Tina Susman and James Queally, Los Angeles Times

NEWARK, N.J. — New Jersey’s largest police department will be placed under federal oversight for repeatedly violating residents’ civil rights, using excessive force, and failing to discipline officers for a wide range of misconduct, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.

The Newark Police Department, a 1,000-member force that patrols one of the most violent cities in the Northeast, will be subject to court-ordered reform, a move that comes after a three-year investigation into rampant misconduct in the agency, according to the Justice Department and court documents.

The federal investigation was launched in 2011, less than a year after a scathing report from the American Civil Liberties Union said the police department was incapable of policing itself.
The investigation found that city police officers had no constitutional basis for 75 percent of the pedestrian stops they conducted in recent years. It also determined that officers often used excessive force during arrests but underreported the level of force used.

“The people of Newark deserve to be safe, and so do the thousands who come here to work, to learn, and to take advantage of all the city has to offer,” Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, said in a statement. “They also need to know the police protecting them are doing that important — and often dangerous — work while respecting their constitutional rights.”

The announcement was made at Fishman’s office in Newark. The court monitor has not yet been chosen, but city and federal officials aim to have the order finalized by mid-September.

“Our investigation uncovered troubling patterns in stops, arrests, and use of force by the police in Newark. With this agreement, we’re taking decisive action to address potential discrimination and end unconstitutional conduct by those who are sworn to serve their fellow citizens,” Attorney General Eric. H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.

Fishman said Justice Department officials and the city had signed “an agreement in principal” to implement a consent decree that will include some form of civilian oversight. An independent monitor will evaluate and report on the city’s implementation of the civilian oversight entity, the details of which have yet to be determined.

The goal is to have the agreement finalized by Sept 15, and the decree will be binding.

Mayor Ras Baraka, who only took office July 1 and has been a longtime critic of the agency, attended the news conference with Fishman and said he welcomed the decree.

“One could look at this 22 days in as mayor as the roof is caving in,” Baraka said. “I look at it as the opportunity to build a new roof.”

Newark Police Chief Anthony Campos said he did not disagree with anything in the Justice Department report. “We’re looking forward to rolling up our sleeves” and getting to work fixing the problems, he said.

Fishman said Newark police officials and Baraka cooperated with the investigation. He also said it was not possible to say when the police abuses began. But he said the offenses clearly had gone on over time, and that it would take time to fix them.

“It will take real work,” he said. “Bad habits … are hard to break. ”

There is no time frame set for the decree’s lifespan. In other major police agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department and New Jersey State Police, consent decrees were in effect for about a decade or more.

“I think it will take years,” said Jocelyn Samuels of the attorney general’s civil rights division. Samuels said the decree would include benchmarks so officials can evaluate progress. Samuels said 14 police departments were currently under federal oversight.

The federal investigation detailed longstanding and institutional misconduct, including retaliatory arrests “for behavior perceived as insubordinate or disrespectful to officers,” according to the documents. Officers also routinely stole from suspects, and Newark’s stop and arrest tactics both unfairly targeted blacks, according to the report.

According to census data, blacks make up 54 percent of the city’s population. But 79 percent of those arrested by Newark police and 85 percent of those stopped identify as black, the report found.

In a 52-page report detailing the federal government’s findings, investigators said that Newark police would often stop residents simply for “loitering” in high-crime areas, and offer little to no justification for interactions with residents.

“In particular, thousands of the stops — all of which were at least long enough to run warrant checks — involved individuals who were described merely as ‘milling,’ ‘loitering,’ or ‘wandering,’ without any indication of criminal activity or suspicion,” the report said. “Some of those were augmented with a notation that the ‘milling,’ ‘loitering,’ or ‘wandering’ was taking place in high-crime areas, high-narcotics areas, or high-gang activity areas. Officers also routinely stopped and ran warrant checks for individuals solely for being present in high-crime areas, near scenes of suspected or reported crimes, or simply ‘in areas.'”

Newark, a city of roughly 250,000 that sits just 15 miles outside New York City, has been a haven for drug and gang violence for years, patrolled by a department whose ranks were slashed by municipal budget cuts in 2010.

The city saw 111 homicides in 2013, its bloodiest year since 1990. Newark has long struggled with poverty and high unemployment, and the city’s residents and police have had a lukewarm relationship since 1967, when a series of race riots left dozens dead.

AFP Photo / Mat Hayward

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