NEW YORK (AP) — It was nearly a year ago when Eric Garner, standing outside a convenience store on July 17, had the encounter with New York City police that led to his death.
The 43-year-old father of six, accused of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes — sick of being hassled by cops — told police to leave him alone. When he refused to be handcuffed, the 6-foot-2, 395-pound man was taken to the ground.
In cellphone videos viewed more than 2.5 million times, Garner is heard yelling “I can’t breathe!” 11 times before he loses consciousness. An autopsy concluded he died in part from neck compressions from the chokehold restraint by police.
Since then, the officer involved avoided criminal prosecution but a federal probe is ongoing. The family has become national advocates for police reform, and the department is reworking how it relates to the public it serves. Here’s a look at a year of anger, sadness and change:
Garner’s children and grandchildren are doing their best to heal, but it’s challenging — and they miss him every day, said his mother, Gwen Carr. She said she’s been using her sadness and anger as fuel for reform, and it’s helping.
But she’s still sad. And angry. And she wants justice for her son.
“I want to see all of those officers stand trial and stand accountable for their gross misconduct,” she said.
Carr said the family is planning a memorial in Brooklyn to commemorate Garner’s life on the anniversary of his death. She said she can picture her son’s response — he’d tell her not to worry too much and not to make a fuss. She said she can picture his face, smiling.
“I want people to be aware of what’s happened. I want to make sure they never forget the name of Eric Garner,” she said. “I’m going to keep that name alive.”
Officer Daniel Pantaleo remains assigned to desk duty, doing crime analysis.
Supporters say he’s been the target of at least one death threat. As a precaution, the police department has posted patrol cars outside his home and that of his parents on Staten Island around-the-clock. Pantaleo’s attorney, Stuart London, said his client still denies intending to harm Garner or even using a chokehold. The officer, despite being demonized by some protesters, also wants get back to full duty.
“He was a dedicated, hard-working cop and, all of a sudden, because of one street encounter, his life has been put on hold,” London said. “He understands why, but he’s frustrated. It’s something he hopes can be cleared up so he can get back to helping the people of this city.”
THE QUEST FOR ANSWERS
After a grand jury in December refused to indict Pantaleo, a groundswell of requests grew from the public and city officials seeking access to the secret testimony and exhibits shown to the jury by the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office.
Public Advocate Letitia James argued the secrecy of the proceedings breeds mistrust in prosecutors and contempt for the justice system. But a judge disagreed and refused to release the proceedings, which are kept secret by law. The New York Civil Liberties Union and other agencies have appealed the decision.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board, the police watchdog agency investigating the misconduct claim against Pantaleo and others, is also seeking the minutes — not for public use but for private investigative reasons. And Garner’s family has said it intends to sue the city.
THE FEDERAL INVESTIGATION
Once the state case fizzled late last year, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn — then led by current U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch — and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division launched in inquiry into Garner’s death to determine whether there’s enough evidence to bring a federal case.
In recent weeks, federal investigators have re-interviewed witnesses, including police officers who were at the scene. Despite the video, there’s enough ambiguity to the case that a prosecution accusing the officer of deliberately violating Garner’s civil rights looks like a long shot. Such cases following grand jury inaction or acquittal at state level are rare, as evidenced by the Justice Department’s decision not to file charges against the white policeman who shot to death an unarmed young black man last summer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Even if there’s no federal case against Pantaleo, he could still face departmental charges and dismissal.
The New York City Police Department has undergone a series of reforms after the case, including the installation of three-day training for all officers on how to better communicate with the public. More than 20,000 officers were trained on how to de-escalate confrontations in order to avoid physical contact unless necessary.
Police officials said the training was in the works before Garner’s death, but was sped up.
Commissioner William Bratton unveiled a new policing plan that puts cops back on the beat, walking their precincts to get better acquainted with shopkeepers and residents. And Bratton has retooled how rookies enter into the academy, eliminating the practice of funneling new cops to the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in favor of spreading them out around the city so they can learn from other officers.
Low-level arrests, like the charge for selling untaxed cigarettes, and summonses have plummeted.
Garner’s death, along with the deaths of other black men at the hands of white police officers, has helped catalyze a national movement urging police reform. “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” have become rally cries around the country.
Nationwide, departments are scrutinized like never before when an officer kills a civilian — and some have undergone federal probes. Garner’s mother and other mothers of men killed by police pressured Gov. Andrew Cuomo to agree to a special prosecutor to investigate deaths by law enforcement and got results: Cuomo signed an order this week putting the state attorney general’s office in charge of such probes.
Carr sees more people of all races protesting the treatment of minorities by police than ever before.
“Before when something happened, it was basically people of color because that’s who they were targeting, but now everybody, people of color, different races, they all stand up. Because they see this as wrong,” she said. “It’s not about black or white, it’s wrong or right. They see the things are happening wrong.”
“Maybe my son’s death brought a certain awareness to them.”