The New York Police Department is investigating the death of a Staten Island man during a scuffle with police officers in which he appeared to be held in a chokehold. The incident has ignited outrage in the community.
Eric Garner, 43, had just broken up a fight in the borough's Tompkinsville neighborhood when he was approached by several police officers, said two witnesses in telephone interviews with The Times. Police said the officers approached Garner on Thursday afternoon to question him about the possible sale of illegal cigarettes.
Garner became involved in an escalating argument with the officers, repeatedly asking them to “leave me alone” before the officers pounced on him, videos of the incident show.
One officer appeared to place Garner, who friends say had chronic asthma, in a chokehold from behind. The officer did not release the hold even after Garner fell to the ground, according to the video. Moments later, Garner can be heard saying, “I can't breathe” while an officer presses his head against the sidewalk.
“As soon as backup came, that's when the guy ran behind him and started choking him,” said Ramsey Orta, 22, a Staten Island resident who recorded one of the videos.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the incident a tragedy during a news conference Friday with Police Commissioner William J. Bratton.
“Like so many New Yorkers, I was very troubled by the video I reviewed earlier today,” said De Blasio, who postponed a vacation to Italy on Friday afternoon to tend to city business.
Bratton said officers approached Garner about 3:30 p.m. “concerning the sale of untaxed cigarettes.” He was pronounced dead about one hour later at Richmond University Medical Center. A cause of death has yet to be determined.
“The video made it quite apparent that the officers made it known to the deceased that they were intending to arrest him,” Bratton said during the news conference. “He made it quite known to them that he was not going to allow that arrest to occur.”
Bratton said that the officer may have used a chokehold, which would have been a violation of department policy.
“Yes, as defined in the department's patrol guide, this would appear to have been a chokehold,” Bratton said. “But the investigation, both by the district attorney's office as well as by our Internal Affairs, will seek to make that final determination as part of our investigation.”
Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the episode highlighted exactly why chokeholds are illegal and suggested the officers may have overreacted.
“It's painful and horrifying to watch the video knowing throughout what the end is,” she said. “Chokeholds are illegal, they're against the Police Department regulations in New York ... and it's horrifying to think that it's over accusations of selling illegal cigarettes.”
Orta and 27-year-old Gary Nieves Jr., another Staten Island resident who said he witnessed the altercation, said that police officers routinely accused Garner of selling loose cigarettes. Nieves said officers did not try to revive Garner.
“I didn't see any resuscitation efforts,” he said. “They basically took a look at him, walked back to their truck parked a half a block away, and walked his dead body up to the ambulance.”
DeBlasio promised a thorough inquiry into the Garner's death. The investigation will be led by Richmond County Dist. Atty. Daniel Donovan.
“We have a responsibility to keep every New Yorker safe, and that includes when individuals are in custody of the NYPD. That is a responsibility that Police Commissioner Bratton and I take very seriously,” the mayor said in a statement. “We are harnessing all resources available to the city to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the circumstances of this tragic incident.”
Several officers appear on the video during the incident. Two have been reassigned to desk duty; one is an eight-year veteran of the department, the other has been with the NYPD for four years, said Bratton.
Garner had been arrested three times in the last year, according to New York City court records. He was arrested on March 28 and May 7 by officers from the 120th Precinct, which patrols the area where he was killed. He was also arrested in August 2013 and charged with possession of marijuana and the sale of untaxed cigarettes.
He was charged again with selling cigarettes illegally in March and May. He was due in court on the charges in October.
The Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network will join Garner's family at events in Harlem and on Staten Island on Saturday. Nieves said residents along the street where Garner died were still shaken Friday.
“People are outraged. They want answers,” Nieves said. “They want to not feel like victims.”