Civil-rights leaders called for a national march and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke about how police can avoid confrontations a day after the U.S. Justice Department began investigating the death of a black Staten Island man choked by a white police officer.
A state grand jury Wednesday declined to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, 43, whose fatal altercation with police was recorded on video by a bystander. The announcement sparked protests across New York City, a reprise of rallies that swept the U.S. after a Missouri grand jury last week declined to indict an officer in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the television host and activist, brought together 25 civil-rights leaders Thursday at his National Action Network in Harlem. Seeking redress on what Sharpton called a dysfunctional state grand jury system will be the focus of a rally in Washington planned for Dec. 13, he said.
“We want a centralized march around a broken system that these grand jury decisions have underscored, when even with a videotape you cannot decide whether there is probable cause to go to trial,” Sharpton said. “A man laying down already surrounded by police choking him, and the man saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ You can’t tell me that’s not probable cause to send the case to trial.”
The fact that a grand jury couldn’t find even a criminal charge of negligence showed that it was biased in favor of the police, Sharpton said. He was joined by speakers including Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League; Melanie Campbell, chief executive of the Black Women’s Roundtable; and Hazel Dukes, New York state president of the NAACP.
To show New Yorkers that he’s focused on improving the police department, de Blasio went to its new $750 million academy in Queens to showcase a new training program. Prompted by Garner’s death, the system is intended to make police more sensitive to minorities.
“This tragedy is raising a lot of tough questions, but there’s tremendous resolve in this city to get it right,” de Blasio told reporters. “We will be changing how officers talk with residents of our city, changing how they listen.”
The training will involve 22,000 of the NYPD’s 34,500 officers, Commissioner Bill Bratton said. The $35 million program will include techniques to persuade people to cooperate; crisis and conflict resolution; and tactics to deflect force.
The program comes amid other changes in NYPD policies and practices, including a 79 percent reduction in stop-and-frisk encounters, relaxed enforcement of marijuana possession laws, a test of body-worn cameras and increased funding and staff for a board that investigates complaints.
Wednesday night, protesters gathered from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Times Square to decry Garner’s July 17 death and mistrust between police and communities nationwide. Police arrested 80 people for disorderly conduct and obstructing vehicles and three for resisting arrest, officials said. There were no significant acts of vandalism and no violence.
Garner died after plainclothes officers led by Pantaleo tried to handcuff him, forcing him to the ground. The video showed Pantaleo applying a chokehold, prohibited by department policy, Bratton has said. In the video, Garner repeatedly says, “I can’t breathe.”
A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, caused by compression of the neck and chest.