NYC grand jury wrapping up on police chokehold death

NEW YORK — Amid the fallout from a grand jury’s decision in the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Missouri, a panel in New York City is quietly nearing its own conclusion about another combustible case involving the death of an unarmed man at the hands of police.

The grand jury that began investigating the chokehold death of Eric Garner in September heard last week from what was believed to be its final witness — the New York Police Department officer seen on a widely watched amateur video showing him wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck. Before the end of the year, authorities are expected to announce whether the officer will face criminal charges in a case that sparked outrage and grabbed headlines before it was overshadowed by the killing of Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.

The Garner video — along with a medical examiner’s finding that the chokehold contributed to his death on the streets of Staten Island — should give a grand jury ample reason to indict, said Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr.

“You’d have to be blind to not see what happened,” Carr said in a telephone interview. “I can’t see why it should take so long to reach a decision. … The wait is making me very anxious, of course. But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who has control over the timing of a grand jury vote and an announcement, has declined to comment. But New York City authorities say they’re already taking steps to avoid a repeat of the violent protests in Ferguson.

The NYPD sent detectives to Missouri to gather intelligence on “professional agitators” who frequent protests and to share strategies for quelling violence, said Police Commissioner William Bratton. Police also have kept in touch with community leaders on Staten Island to coordinate the response to the grand jury decision.

“We’re always and constantly networking and trying to make ourselves accessible and reaching out,” Bratton said.

The Garner case stems from a July 17 confrontation between Officer Daniel Pantaleo and other NYPD officers who stopped him on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. The video shot by an onlooker shows the 43-year-old Garner, who was black, telling the officers to leave him alone and refusing to be handcuffed.

Pantaleo, who is white, responded by putting Garner in an apparent chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy. The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, is heard gasping, “I can’t breathe.” He later was pronounced dead at a hospital.

The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused in part by the chokehold. But police union officials and Pantaleo’s lawyer have argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a chokehold, and that Garner’s poor health was the main reason he died.

As in the Brown case, which involved a black 18-year-old and a white officer, Garner’s family sought intervention by federal prosecutors. Carr and others met several weeks ago with U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch — the nominee to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder — whose office covers Staten Island. Lynch hasn’t commented.

“She just said that they were keeping an eye on the case,” Carr said. “It gave me something to hold onto.”

Some demonstrators at a recent Brooklyn protest organized in respond to the Ferguson case said they expected a similar outcome in New York.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if another cop got off,” said 15-year-old Gramal Ralph, who’s black. “I would hope that we could get justice here, but I don’t have faith in the system anymore.”

Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.

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