The news Wednesday that a Staten Island grand jury won’t indict a white New York City police officer who was caught on camera using an apparent chokehold that left Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, dead has pushed many in the black community closer to a breaking point.
It also set off a string of announcements Thursday as federal and local officials scrambled to react to the news and announce steps to combat the rising tide of anger.
The Garner decision came on the heels of a series of police encounters across the country that together underscore a persistent sense that law enforcement unfairly targets minorities — and that the justice system rarely holds law enforcement accountable for killing or assaulting blacks.
Last week, a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict a white officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri. Days earlier, a 12-year-old black Cleveland boy was killed by another white officer after raising a toy pistol. And, more quietly, a third grand jury recently decided not to charge two white police officers in southeast Texas who were caught on camera violently assaulting a black woman and dragging her by the feet into a dark cell.
The cases are nominally unrelated, but that’s not how many in the black community see it.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday afternoon that after a nearly two-year investigation, the Justice Department had found evidence that the Cleveland Division of Police “engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force,” potentially in violation of the Constitution. He announced a court-enforceable consent decree aimed at ensuring that the police department institutes reforms.
Holder met in Cleveland with law enforcement, local officials, community leaders, student leaders and faith leaders in an effort to ease community-police tensions.
The city has seen angry protests in response to the Nov. 22 incident in which a city police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice seconds after arriving on the scene where Rice was holding a replica of a gun. A report on Wednesday revealed that the cop, who was sworn in as a full-time officer in August, had resigned from his previous job with a small-town police force after being deemed emotionally unstable and unfit for duty.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio sought to reassure protesters he hears their anger in the wake of the Garner decision. At a press conference Thursday afternoon, de Blasio, the father of two black children, declared “black and brown lives matter.” He added: “Fundamental questions are being asked and rightfully so. The way we go about policing has to change.”
De Blasio also announced retraining for the NYPD — “we will be changing how officers talk and listen to people,” he said — and urged New Yorkers to work for change. He urged protesters to remain peaceful and praised police for their handling of Wednesday night’s demonstrations.
NYPD Commisisoner Bill Bratton also announced that the department would ramp up its internal investigation into Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose apparent chokehold maneuver led to Garner’s death.
Hours earlier, a group of civil rights leaders including National Action Network president Al Sharpton met in Harlem, and announced a march on Washington D.C. for Dec. 13. They’ll be joined at that event by the families of Garner and Michael Brown, the 18-year-old killed by a Ferguson police officer in August.
“It is time for a national march to deal with a national crisis. Why a national march? Because we cannot be put around like social hamsters – one minute Ferguson, next minute New York, next minute Cleveland,” Sharpton said. “No, we’re going to bring Ferguson, Cleveland, and all of New York to the nation’s capital to say enough is enough.”
Sharpton and allies also announced a major “social justice and leadership summit” for 2015.
President Obama said the Garner verdict underscores the “concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.”
Others went much further. In a statement issued Wednesday, the Advancement Project, a civil rights group, lamented the ”nonstop cycle of criminalization and violence against Black and Brown people, the daily harassment and humiliation that cops inflict on communities of color, and the senseless deaths.”
“We cannot wait another day for a justice system that, at its most basic, works to serve and protect us all,” the group added. “We have lost too many lives, too many families are grieving, and too many communities are broken.”
Cornell Brooks, the president of the NAACP, said his group is “frustrated,” but “not defeated.”
“The NAACP and our allies will not stand down until accountability and justice in cases of police misconduct are served for Garner and the countless other men and women who lost their lives to such police discrimination,” Brooks added.
One case on Thursday showed that indictments aren’t impossible in such situations: A grand jury indicted Richard Combs, the police chief of Eutawville, South Carolina, for the 2011 shooting death of an unarmed black man. Combs had argued and fought with the man, Bernard Bailey, about a ticket for a broken taillight given to Bailey’s daughter.
But the other cases, which to many seem consistent with a longstanding pattern of harassment and bias, have dominated attention and emotions.
The Justice Department is also conducting civil rights investigations into the deaths of Garner and Brown. Loretta Lynch, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, promised a “fair and thorough” federal probe into Garner’s death. Lynch has been nominated to replace Holder as attorney general.
The St. Louis County Police Department stoked further anger by weighing in on Rice’s death Thursday morning, tweeting a link to a Facebook post that offered tips for parents on how to avoid having their kids shot by police while playing with toy guns. The Facebook post and tweet appear to have both been removed after attracting a stream of angry responses. The police department apologized on Thursday.
In the New York City case, Patrick Lynch, president of the NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said at a press conference that the officer in the Garner case, Pantaleo, had not used a forbidden chokehold.
The video of the encounter showed “a police officer doing what he was taught in police academy,” Lynch said. ” It was textbook and that’s what he did.”
“A chokehold is directly around neck and brought to ground,” Lynch added. ”It was a take-down maneuver.”