NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The New York City Medical Examiner’s office has ruled that the chokehold by a police officer on a Staten Island man last month caused his death.
Eric Garner’s July 17 death has been ruled a homicide, Medical Examiner’s office spokeswoman Julie Bolcer said Friday.
His death was caused by the “compression of his neck (chokehold), compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police” and asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors, Bolcer said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a statement in response to the finding, expressing condolences to Garner’s family.
“On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest sympathies to the family of Eric Garner, on this day we have received the Medical Examiner’s findings concerning the cause of his death,” the mayor said in the statement. “My administration will continue to work with all involved authorities, including the Richmond County District Attorney, to ensure a fair and justified outcome.”
De Blasio also addressed the tension that has erupted between police and community activists in the wake of Garner’s death.
“We all have a responsibility to work together to heal the wounds from decades of mistrust and create a culture where the police department and the communities they protect respect each other—and that’s a responsibility that (NYPD) Commissioner (Bill) Bratton and I take very seriously,” the mayor said in the statement. “I’ve said that we would make change, and we will. As Mayor, I remain absolutely committed to ensuring that the proper reforms are enacted to ensure that this won’t happen again.”
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton also issued a brief statement.
“The NYPD has been informed of the preliminary findings by the Office of Chief Medical Examiner as it relates to the death of Eric Garner,” Bratton said. “We will continue to cooperate with the Richmond County District Attorney’s office, which is the lead investigative entity in this case.”
But Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said Garner resisted arrest, and argued that the incident may not have happened if he had not.
“Our sympathies and prayers go out to the family and friends of Mr. Garner. Police Officers don’t start their days expecting or wanting something like this to occur in the performance of their duties,” Lynch’s statement said. “The ME’s report indicates that Mr. Garner was a man with serious health problems so there will have to be a complete and thorough analysis of all the factors that played a part in this tragedy. We believe, however, that if he had not resisted the lawful order of the police officers placing him under arrest, this tragedy would not have occurred.”
The 43-year-old father of six died in police custody on Staten Island after he had been stopped by police for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
In cellphone video of the incident, an officer is seen placing his arm around Garner’s neck in a chokehold and then taking him to the ground after Garner refuses to be handcuffed.
Garner is heard saying repeatedly, “I can’t breathe!”
Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who was seen on video placing Garner in a chokehold, and another unidentified officer were placed on modified reassignment pending the outcome of the case.
Four emergency workers were suspended without pay pending an investigation.
As CBS 2’s Dave Carlin reported, the Staten Island District Attorney’s office said it has been in contact with the ME’s office, and they are awaiting a death certificate and autopsy report.
“The investigation into Mr. Garner’s death continues,” the DA’s office said.
As WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported, CBS News Legal Analyst Jack Ford said the results will help the District Attorney with his investigation.
“It gives the prosecutor an opportunity to say, ‘All right, I’ve got most of the things I need here,’” he said.
He believes a likely charge could be manslaughter.
“That deals with circumstances where you didn’t intend to kill somebody, but you did engage in reckless conduct,” Ford said.
Garner’s videotaped confrontation with police has caused widespread outcry, and Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Justice Department is “closely monitoring” the investigation into his death.
PHOTOS: Eric Garner’s Funeral
On Friday night, friends of Garner’s returned to the spot where he died after the release of the Medical Examiner’s ruling.
“The streets are waiting and watching, in regards, so we have to wait and see what the overall outcome is,” said John Lucas of Tompkinsville, Staten Island.
Friends agreed that the chokehold was responsible for Garner’s death.
“They just grabbed him, and choked him — put him on the floor and killed him,” said Jessie Daniels of Tompkinsville.
Garner’s neighbor, Julia Ingram, denounced the officers involved.
“How could somebody do that, when he said he couldn’t breathe?” she said.
Friend Charlene Thomas told 1010 WINS’ Derricke Dennis that she believes the officers involved should be punished.
“The police are the gangsters, and they all should go to jail for killing him,” she said.
Garner’s wife had no comment.
The medical examiner’s ruling came a day after Mayor de Blasio hosted a roundtable meeting at City Hall with Bratton, the Rev. Al Sharpton and members of the community on how to reform the NYPD.
The discussion was prompted by Garner’s death.
Bratton has promised retraining from top to bottom in the department. But as CBS 2 political reporter Marcia Kramer reported, Sharpton said that was not enough and argued that fundamental change in police policy is needed.
Sharpton and other activists at the meeting were sharply critical of Bratton’s “broken windows” theory of policing, which involves going after the small crimes – such as those peddling untaxed cigarettes, as Garner was allegedly doing.
“Given the data that we are seeing in terms of these ‘broken window’ kind of operations, it’s disproportionate in the black and Latino community,” Sharpton said to de Blasio. “If Dante wasn’t your son, he’d be a candidate for a chokehold.”
De Blasio and Bratton say retraining the police force is the answer.
“Training is absolutely the essential catalyst for, out of this tragedy, finding opportunity,” said Bratton.
“Systemic retraining will have a huge impact, and it will help us to bring out the best ideas,” de Blasio said. “It will help us to draw the police closer to the community and the community closer to the police.”
But Sharpton strongly disagreed.
“Training is important, but you don’t need training if a man is saying 11 times ‘I can’t breathe’ and you’re still holding him in a grip lock,” Sharpton said. “You don’t need training. You need to have people who understand that the law is what they protect and uphold — they’re not above the law.”
Sharpton said the officers involved should be criminally charged to send a message.
The meeting was held a day after Bratton met with the NAACP about policing reforms. During the meeting Wednesday, the NAACP called for monitoring during the retraining process.
“What he conceded was that New York City is a very different city, America is a very different country, and we are in a place now where we are in a position where we have to consider serious reforms in the way policing is done,” said NAACP President Cornell Brooks.
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