A Staten Island grand jury declined Wednesday to indict a white New York City police officer in connection with the July chokehold death of an unarmed black man.
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But the Department of Justice now plans to open a federal civil rights investigation into the July 17 death of Eric Garner at the hands of police officer Daniel Pantaleo.
“I received a phone call from Attorney General Eric Holder and US Attorney Loretta Lynch,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at an evening news conference in Staten Island. “They made clear that the investigation initiated by the US attorney will now move forward. That it would be done expeditiously. That it would be done with a clear sense of independence. And that it would be a thorough investigation.”
He added that the New York Police Department will open its own investigation to decide possible administration action.
Pantaleo, a 29-year-old, eight-year veteran of the force, faced charges ranging from murder to a lesser offense such as reckless endangerment in the death of Garner, who was stopped on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. Videocaptured Pantaleo using what appeared to be an illegal chokehold on Garner, a 43-year-old father of six with a lengthy criminal record. Garner, who had health problems, died as a result of the encounter.
In the video, Garner can be heard yelling, “I can’t breathe!”
President Obama, speaking at the Tribal Nations Conference in Washington after the grand jury’s decision, said many minority communities across the United States feel that law enforcement is not working with them “in a fair way.”
“We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement,” Obama said.
By mid-afternoon, protests began to bubble up around the city. A Twitter hashtag, #ShutItDown, called on demonstrators to protest Wednesday night’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. The New York Post reported that angry protesters began to gather outside the shop where Garner died following the decision. Demonstrations were planned for Harlem and Brooklyn. A “lie-in” was held at the main concourse of Grand Central Station in Manhattan, though MyFoxNY.com reported that protesters were not blocking commuters and no arrests were being made.
By 5:30 p.m. in Times Square, about 300 protesters had peacefully congregated to criticize the grand jury’s decision, as dozens of uniformed New York City police officers looked on. Protesters chanted: “I can’t breathe!”; “No justice, no peace!”; “How do you spell racism? NYPD!”; “This is resistance!”
Ashley Coneys, 25, a self-described “person of color” lives several neighborhoods away from where Garner was killed in Staten Island. She said she was more shocked by Wednesday’s development in the Garner case than a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white Ferguson, Mo. police officer in the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
“If officers never have to account for killing people of color, where’s the justice?” she told FoxNews.com. “Police are supposed to make us feel safe, but we don’t have a relationship where we feel safe.”
Another Times Square protester, Nadya Stevens, 31, said she was skeptical that a NYPD pilot program to have police officers wear body cameras would prevent deaths at the hands of police officers.
“If there was a camera on Eric Garner as he was being killed, I don’t know what body cameras are going to do,” Stevens told FoxNews.com, adding that the issue goes beyond race and is a matter of police force.
“This isn’t about black people. This is about humanity,” she said.
Garner’s family has filed a notice that it plans to sue the city for $75 million on the grounds of wrongful death, pre-death pain and suffering and civil rights violation, The New York Post reported. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who is an adviser to the family, has called for a federal probe.
The grand jury, which consisted of 15 whites and 8 minorities, concluded there was not enough evidence to indict Pantaleo.
He had been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty while the case was under investigation, and is likely to remain on modified duty while the NYPD conducts an internal investigation that could result in administrative charges.
While details on the grand jurors were not disclosed, Staten Island is the most politically conservative of the city’s five boroughs and home to many police and firefighters. The panel began hearing evidence in late September, including the video, autopsy results and testimony by Pantaleo.
In anticipation of the announcement on the grand jury decision, police officials met with community leaders on Staten Island to head off a repeat of the response in Ferguson, where demonstrations turned violent, resulting in more than 100 arrests and destruction of 12 commercial buildings by fire.
New York City’s Police Commissioner William Bratton was asked Sunday if what happened in Ferguson could happen in New York. He said the NYPD has been preparing for months “in multiple ways,” including community meetings, and added that he was more concerned with outside agitators.
In the wake of the decision, de Blasio said he would not attend Wednesday’s Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center.
Garner’s death comes one day after Bratton and de Blasio touted the continued reduction of crime in New York City, which overall has fallen 4.4 percent from this time a year ago, with homicides falling 6.8 percent from the end of November 2013, according to police statistics.
But Tuesday’s news conference also gave the mayor a chance to remind New Yorkers of the changes he’s implemented to the NYPD at a time when the relationship between police and communities of color has fallen under an intense spotlight nationwide in the wake of Ferguson and Garner’s death.
And the NYPD’s use of stop and frisk, the policy that allows police to stop anyone deemed suspicious but which a federal judge ruled discriminated against blacks and Latinos, has fallen 79 percent in the first three-quarters of 2014.
FoxNews.com’s Karl de Vries and The Associated Press contributed to this report.