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The Garner case aims more anger at police

Recent complaints about police treatment raises questions of accountability, police tactics and the law

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday that the Department of Justice will launch a civil rights investigation into the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island in New York. That comes after a grand jury decided not to bring charges against a plainclothes police officer involved in Garner’s death, despite a video of the incident.

Garner had resisted arrest when police officers confronted him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes, and the situation escalated. In the recording, one officer appears to hold Garner firmly around the neck while others press down and restrain him. Garner’s final words are “I can’t breathe.” 

New York City’s medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide resulting from the chokehold and a “compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” The police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, says he never intended to hurt Garner and did not think his actions would be fatal. On Wednesday a grand jury determined there was not enough evidence to go to trial.

“To kill that man over here over a loose cigarette, which costs 50 cents, to choke him, to have him saying that “I can’t breathe’ — you have video, and you have audio, and you can't get a conviction. What else do you need?” said James Reynolds, a Staten Island resident.

After the grand jury’s decision was announced, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked citizens to remain calm and referred to the wishes of Garner’s stepfather, Benjamin Carr. De Blasio said, “In the midst of his pain, one of the things he stopped and said so squarely was, there can’t be violence. He said Eric would not have wanted violence. Violence won’t get us anywhere.” 

More than a thousand mostly peaceful protesters descended on the streets of Manhattan in anger, clogging Grand Central Terminal and shutting down traffic arteries.

“It’s dead wrong. [Pantaleo is] a murderer, a cold-blooded murder … It’s a homicide,” said Jenny Chambers, a Staten Island resident.

Garner’s death has again highlighted tensions between the black community and police in the U.S. President Barack Obama touched on the distrust and injustice felt by many African-Americans and says there needs to be change. “We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement,” he said.

Cleveland is another city where protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks, after 12-year-old Tamir Rice brandished a toy gun in a park and was shot dead by an officer who responded to the scene. Attorney General Eric Holder was in the city today to talk about a Justice Department investigation into 600 use-of-force incidents from 2010 to 2013 in Cleveland.

The report found that since long before the shooting of Rice, police in Cleveland have been poorly trained on how to control people during arrests and that some officers don’t know how to handle firearms safely. The city will work with the Justice Department to appoint a court-ordered monitor to oversee reform efforts.

Is there a police accountability problem?

Do police use excessive force far more against black people than against whites?

What are the dynamics behind the conflict between police and suspects?

Are police critics too sensitive? Are officers doing the best they can in highly stressful situations?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

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