By Barbara Goldberg, Sebastien Malo and Laila Kearney
A police union official on Thursday defended a white officer’s role in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man in New York even as protesters planned a new round of demonstrations a day after a grand jury voted not to bring charges.
New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch told reporters on Thursday that Officer Daniel Pantaleo had acted properly in restraining Eric Garner during an arrest attempt in the borough of Staten Island in July.
“He’s a model of what we want a police officer to be,” Lynch said.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders called for the appointment of a special federal prosecutor to investigate suspected cases of police abuse, including the shooting death in August of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.
“We want the justice department to address the fact that the system is broken when you are dealing with the police and people of color,” Sharpton told reporters at a news conference.
The grand jury cleared Pantaleo on Wednesday, setting off protests in New York and in other major cities. The decision was announced just over a week after a Missouri grand jury declined to charge a white policeman who killed Brown in Ferguson, touching off rioting, looting and burning.
Hundreds of protesters swarmed the streets in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday night, many chanting “I can’t breathe,” the same phrase Garner repeatedly gasped in a video of the incident on a Staten Island sidewalk before his death. Police reported 83 arrests by Thursday morning.
People demonstrated in other cities, including Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Denver.
Separately on Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department had found the Cleveland Police Department systematically engages in excessive use of force against civilians.
The 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 toy gun on a playground.
The findings will prompt federally mandated reforms but carry no criminal charges.
The police union’s Lynch criticized New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, saying he failed to support police after the decision in his initial remarks on Wednesday.
“Unequivocally, police officers feel like they have been thrown under the bus,” Lynch said.
De Blasio, who took office in January promising to repair relations between minority New Yorkers and the police department, was also expected to address the media Thursday.
Pantaleo said in a statement: “It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.”
But earlier on Thursday, Garner’s wife, Esaw Garner, rejected the condolences offered by Pantaleo.
“The time to apologize or have any remorse … would have been when my husband was screaming he couldn’t breathe,” Esaw Garner told NBC’s “Today” show.
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?”
The officer’s lawyer, Stuart London, told Reuters on Thursday Pantaleo was trying to bring Garner to the ground using a move he learned in training to protect the two of them from crashing through a storefront glass window in the struggle. Lynch also said Pantaleo had properly applied an approved takedown technique.
The city’s medical examiner said police officers had killed the 43-year-old Garner by compressing his neck and chest and ruled the death a homicide, adding that Garner’s asthma and obesity had contributed to his death.
Although chokeholds are technically banned by New York City police regulations, the 2,000-page patrol guide is vague about whether such use of force can be allowed in certain circumstances, said Maria Haberfeld, who heads John Jay College’s Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration.
That grey area, she said, may have influenced the grand jury and could play a role in determining whether Pantaleo faces departmental discipline.
Holder said on Wednesday the Justice Department, which is already probing the circumstances of the Missouri shooting, would also examine the Garner case, as well as the local inquiry into it.
Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, whom President Barack Obama has nominated to succeed Holder and whose office will help lead the investigation, said in a statement on Wednesday the probe would be “fair and thorough.”
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, whose office oversaw the local investigation, said on Wednesday he had asked a judge to authorize the release of evidence that was presented to the grand jury, which like all grand juries operated in secret. A decision has not been announced.