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New York to Retrain Police in Wake of Chokehold Death Case


Protests, Federal Investigation After Grand Jury Fails to Indict White Officer in Black Man's Death
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Watch related video report from VOA's Carolyn Weaver.

New York says it is going to retrain its police force in the wake of a grand jury decision to not indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the retraining of the city's 20,000-member force Thursday. He said it was essential -- "something fundamental," in his words -- that people of all races be treated equally by police.

One key police official, Benjamin Tucker, said currently there is a "disconnect" between police and the city's 8.4 million residents. He said the three-day retraining sessions would be completed by June.

Hours earlier, U.S. civil rights leaders condemned Wednesday's grand jury decision. The New York case is one of several recent police killings of blacks that have occurred under questionable circumstances in the United States.

National civil rights leaders also pledged to release a longer-term “2015 action plan” that would address excessive force by law enforcement and police accountability one day after the grand jury cleared New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner during an arrest attempt in July.

National Urban League president Marc Morial said Thursday the incident represents the "abject, absolute failure" of the U.S. criminal justice system.

"This is a time in this nation, this is a moment where our consciousness is shocked."

Morial reserved his harshest rebuke for Wednesday's New York grand jury decision, saying it "defied common sense."

Another civil rights activist, Al Sharpton, called for the federal government to correct what he said is a "broken" system of state grand juries unwilling to hold police accountable for their actions and indict them on criminal charges.

Demonstrators held new protests in New York on Thursday after Wednesday's announcement that a grand jury had decided not to charge the police officer.

Protests first erupted there and in several other U.S. cities late Wednesday, and picked up again on Thursday. Scores of people marched through Times Square hours after the decision was announced, many of them chanting, "No justice, no peace.”

Mostly peaceful protests

The protests were largely peaceful, but police said they arrested 83 people, mostly for disorderly conduct.

On Thursday, Garner's wife, Esaw Garner, told NBC’s “Today” show that she rejected the condolences offered by Pantaleo after he was cleared in her husband’s death.

In an incident captured by a pedestrian on his smartphone video recorder, Eric Garner is heard repeatedly gasping, “I can't breathe, I can't breathe” as he is being restrained by police on a Staten Island sidewalk.

“The time to apologize or have any remorse ... would have been when my husband was screaming he couldn't breathe,” Esaw Garner said.

Meanwhile, the officer's lawyer, Stuart London, told WCBS Radio that Pantaleo “was attempting a takedown move that he was taught in the [police] academy” when he tried to put Eric Garner on the ground. “He never meant to apply any force to his neck,” London told the radio show.

The city's medical examiner ruled Eric Garner’s death a homicide. He said the officers had killed Garner, 43, by compressing his neck and chest, and added that Garner's asthma and obesity also contributed to his death.

The use of chokeholds was banned by the New York Police Department in 1993. But the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the municipal police union, said the officers involved in the incident had acted within the law.

When the grand jury's decision was revealed, Garner's wife told the “Today” show: “I started crying because it's not fair. It's not fair. What could they not see? How could they possibly not indict?

“I felt hopeless. ... like there was nothing left for me to fight for, but then I got some encouraging phone calls. ... I felt now that we have some type of hope, some type of justice to be done for my husband,” Esaw Garner said, referring to a promised federal investigation.

Federal investigation

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday promised a full investigation into a white New York police officer's role in the choking death of an unarmed black man, following a night of protests over a grand jury decision not to bring charges in the incident.

Speaking in Cleveland, where he announced the Justice Department had found the police department in that city systematically engaged in excessive use of force, Holder said officials must do more to repair the trust between police officers and the communities they patrol.

Federal investigations into the Ferguson, Missouri and New York cases, which are ongoing, are not enough, said Holder, who is the country's top law enforcement official.

The Cleveland investigation, which began in March 2013, gained added prominence after a Cleveland police officer last month shot dead a 12-year-old boy who was carrying what turned out to be a replica pellet gun on a playground.

Holder acknowledged on Thursday that the bar for bringing federal civil rights charges is high but said the Justice Department has met that standard when appropriate.

The New York Police Department also is doing an internal probe that could lead to administrative charges against Pantaleo, who remains on desk duty, according to The Associated Press.

In order to find Pantaleo criminally negligent, the grand jury would have had to determine he knew there was a “substantial risk” that Garner would have died. Pataleo's lawyer and union officials argued that the grand jury got it right, saying he used an authorized takedown move - not a banned chokehold - and that Garner's poor health was the main cause of his death.

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to bring charges. The grand jury could have considered a range of charges, from murder to a lesser offense such as reckless endangerment.

“I am actually astonished based on the evidence of the videotape, and the medical examiner, that this grand jury at this time wouldn't indict for anything,” a lawyer for the Garner family, Jonathan Moore, told the AP.

The decision not to indict Pantaleo comes less than two weeks after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, declined to indict a white officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager during a street confrontation. In another controversial case, a 12-year-old black boy was shot dead by police in Cleveland, Ohio, while the youth was handling a toy pistol at a playground.

'An American problem'

President Barack Obama reacted swiftly to the grand jury decision, saying it underscores the frustrations many African-Americans feel "that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way."

"And in some cases those may be misperceptions but in some cases that's a reality," Obama said, "and it is incumbent on all of us as Americans, regardless of race, region, faith, that we recognize this is an American problem and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem; this is an American problem.

"When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that's a problem. And it's my job as president to help solve it," he said.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called this a “deeply emotional day” for the Garner family and all New Yorkers, acknowledging that many people do not agree with the grand jury’s decision.

Protests occurred across the nation after the grand jury's decision was announced Wednesday. Demonstrators in Oakland, California, blocked major streets as they marched in solidarity with New York demonstrators. Demonstrations were also held in other cities including Seattle and Atlanta.

VOA correspondent Carolyn Weaver contributed to this report from New York. Some material for this report came from Reuters and AP.

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