A white New York City police officer will not face criminal charges in the apparent chokehold death last July of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, the Richmond County district attorney announced Wednesday. Reaction to the decision at the highest levels was swift, with Attorney General Eric Holder launching a federal civil rights investigation into the case and President Obama reiterating his pledge to personally oversee a national effort to improve the relationship between police and communities of color.
"When anybody in this country isn't being treated equally under the law that's a problem and it's my job as president to help solve it," Obama said in Washington. “We must seek to heal the breakdown in trust that we have seen," Holder said at a separate Washington appearance later Wednesday.
The grand jury's decision not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was met with shock and disbelief, coming just over a week after another white police officer, Darren Wilson, escaped indictment in the August shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Lawmakers nationally and in New York condemned the decision in the Garner case, while scores of protesters marched through Manhattan threatening to disrupt the annual Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center. Eight-three people were arrested overnight, according to police.
Richmond County District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan Jr. announced the grand jury's conclusion in a statement Wednesday. "After deliberation on the evidence presented in this matter, the grand jury found there was no reasonable cause to vote for an indictment," he wrote.
Pantaleo placed Garner, a 43-year old father of six, in a chokehold after a team of officers detained him for allegedly selling loose untaxed cigarettes. The incident was caught on video by a cell phone camera and published nationally, fueling claims of police brutality and unfair treatment of black men by law enforcement.
The video, which captured the moments leading up to Garner’s death, showed the 350-pound man saying “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” as Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold and wrestled him to the ground. Garner died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital, according to officials.
Garner’s death was ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Examiner, which identified the cause of death as “compression of the neck” as well as complicating health factors, such as Garner’s weight and asthma. New York state law defines homicide as "conduct which causes the death of a person." Pantaleo was placed on desk duty following the incident and stripped of his gun and badge.
While it's not clear which of the potential charges against Pantaleo may have been presented to the grand jury, New York law offers a range of options, including first- and second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, criminal obstruction of breathing, and strangulation in the first degree, which is defined as a hate crime and requires a very high standard of proof.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, apparently mindful of the protests unleashed in Ferguson last week following the St. Louis grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson, appealed for a peaceful response to the Garner decision. "Violence won't get us anywhere," de Blasio said at a press conference in Staten Island, quoting a conversation he'd had with Garner's father Wednesday afternoon.
"We are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day," de Blasio said.
On Capitol Hill, New York lawmakers including Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, Charlie Rangel, Nydia Velazquez, Gregory Meeks and Yvette Clarke pressed for a federal civil rights investigation into the case.
"We have a problem America has to confront. We can't run away from it any further," Jeffries told reporters, noting that he is the father of two black sons. "I don't know what to say to them about this," Jeffries said.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand released a statement also calling for the Justice Department to intervene. "Nobody unarmed should die on a New York City street corner for suspected low-level offenses," she said. Fellow New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer also called for a federal investigation, tweeting that it should happen "as soon as possible."
A Justice Department official told NBC News later Wednesday that the department would be conducting an independent civil rights investigation into Garner's death, though the official noted that authorities have been already following the police investigation closely. The federal investigation will be led by Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, who was recently nominated by President Obama to succeed Eric Holder as attorney general.
The Brown and Garner killings, as well as the shooting death of a 12-year old black boy, Tamir Rice, by police in Cleveland last month, have galvanized a national conversation about the use of excessive force by law enforcement and have increased interest in using body cameras as a way to boost police accountability. The NYPD announced Monday that it has already begun training around a body camera initiative.
The presence of a camera doesn't necessarily alter the outcome, however, as the Garner decision showed. Pantaleo's fatal encounter Garner was fully videotaped, but it was not enough to persuade the grand jury to hand down charges against the officer.
The New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (PBA), which represents Pantaleo, issued an apology from the officer and a separate statement of its own.
"It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner," Pantaleo's statement read. "My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss."
"While we are pleased with the Grand Jury's decision, there are no winners here today," the PBA statement said. "There was a loss of life that both a family and a police officer will always have to live with. It is clear that the officer's intention was to do nothing more than take Mr. Garner into custody as instructed and that he used the take down technique that he learned in the academy when Mr. Garner refused."
The NYPD bans the use of the chokehold.
The Twitter account for the NYPD Chief of Community Affairs, Joanne Jaffe, posted a reaction after the grand jury decision with the hashtag "Wehearyou," which quickly became a top trending topic in the United States on the social platform, with many users responding negatively to the statement along with the hashtag "ICantBreathe."
Garner’s family expressed dismay over the grand jury’s decision in an interview with Rev. Al Sharpton on msnbc’s “PoliticsNation.” “It’s like they’re not even seeing what I saw,” Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, said of the video of the incident that led to her husband’s death.
Fighting back tears, Esaw Garner said life after her husband has been “so lonely. It’s so sad. Every day I try to look at the TV to keep my mind from thinking about what’s going on. But every time I turn the TV on I see this video.”
Esaw Garner spoke to Attorney General Eric Holder by phone before the interview. She said during her interview with Sharpton that she feels “some type of hope” after discussing the case with Holder.
In midtown Manhattan, protesters marched up Sixth Avenue, where they were barricaded to one side of the street alongside people there to attend the tree lighting. Many chanted, "No justice, no peace," and some raised their arms in the air as they continued to march.
Some protesters eventually barreled through the police barricades set up along the street, leading to a tense standoff with police. Several people were taken into police custody as the crowd swelled into the street. Unable to surge past the barricades and holiday crowd gathered for the tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Plaza, groups took up positions at the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, alternating between chants of "hands up, don't shoot" and "I can't breathe" -- symbols of the final moments of Michael Brown and Eric Garner's lives, respectively.
One man held a sign that read: "Ferguson is everywhere."
MSNBC's Amanda Sakuma and Michele Richinick contributed to this story.