In the hours after New York City police officers placed a chokehold on Eric Garner last year, leading to his death, officers drafted a five-page report, describing how they grabbed him by his arms and took him down to the ground – never once mentioning any contact with his neck.
But that was apparently before a video of his chokehold death was posted online by the New York Daily News six hours later last July, quickly going viral, showing the 43-year-old man gasping the now infamous words, “I can’t breath,” before he died.
Without video of his final struggle, Mr. Garner’s death may have attracted little notice or uproar. Without seeing it, the world would not have known exactly how he died.
The video images were cited in the final autopsy report as one of the factors that led the city medical examiner to conclude that the chokehold and chest compression by the police caused Mr. Garner’s death. Absent the video, many in the Police Department would have gone on believing his death to have been solely caused by his health problems: obesity, asthma and hypertensive cardiovascular disease. The autopsy report, which is confidential, was provided by a person close to Mr. Garner’s family.
“We didn’t know anything about a chokehold or hands to the neck until the video came out,” said a former senior police official with direct knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his access to confidential department information. “We found out when everyone else did.”
However, the video of his death along with a second video showing the unwillingness of paramedics to treat Garner at the scene did nothing to persuade the grand jury to indict the officers involved in his death.
But now the New York Times reveals that the grand jury had shown little interest in crucial details that would have helped them make a thorough analysis of the information presented to them, refusing to prod deeper into witness testimony that a sergeant told NYPD Detective Danny Pantaleo to ease off him as he lay on top of Garner squeezing an arm around his neck while pressing his head into the sidewalk.
As Officer Pantaleo and other officers pressed Mr. Garner onto the sidewalk, a uniformed patrol sergeant, Kizzy Adonis, entered the tight frame of the video. It was not clear exactly when a second sergeant, Dhanan Saminath, arrived. In the report, both described arriving after Mr. Garner was on the ground.
The beauty store manager, Mr. Lee, said he heard the female sergeant say, “Let up, you got him already.” An officer looked up but did not let go, Mr. Lee said.
Before the grand jury, Mr. Lee said he testified briefly about what he saw, but left feeling the jurors, who were able to ask questions, were uninterested. “They didn’t ask me nothing,” he said.
Mr. Orta also told the grand jurors that a sergeant instructed officers to ease up. “Let him go, let him go, he’s done,” Mr. Orta recalled her saying.
The internal report handed to superiors after the incident also quoted a witness, Taisha Allen, who recorded the second of two videos at the scene, as saying that no chokehold was used.
However, Allen told the Times that she later testified in front of the grand jury that she did see a chokehold, accusing police of twisting her statements to fit their narrative.
The judge who presided over the grand jury, Justice William E. Garnett, refused to release evidence of the hearing, siding with Staten Island district attorney, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., that it would produce a “chilling effect” on witnesses.
But the New York Times report reveals the only chilling effect came from police, prosecutors, paramedics and participants of the grand jury.
In fact, Garnett on Friday expressed concern that releasing the grand jury minutes to the Civilian Complaint Review Board to investigate possible misconduct would result in leaks to the public and would not hesitate to hold those leakers accountable.
Among some of New York Times findings:
- Garner had broken up a fight in the moments before police confronted him, which is why witnesses initially thought police were responding to the fight and were surprised when they approached Garner about selling untaxed cigarettes.
- The original Ramsey Orta video totaled 16 minutes, which was shown to the grand jury, but only a portion of it has been made public.
- Allen told the grand jury that police placed Garner in a chokehold, but prosecutors told her she was not allowed to say they placed him in a chokehold.
- An autopsy conducted the day following Garner’s death reported there was no visible damage to his neck, fueling the narrative that he died because of existing medical issues, but a later autopsy determined there “were telltale signs of choking: strap muscle hemorrhages in his neck and petechial hemorrhages in his eyes.”
- The New York City Police Department, who have long operated under the “broken windows” theory of policing, which requires them to crackdown on minor victimless crimes, are now exploring new ways to address minor offenses that do not require arrests.
- The owner of the building where Garner stood in front selling untaxed cigarettes, Gjafer Gjeshbitraj, who called police to complain about the cigarette peddlers several times, no longer calls police on the men selling untaxed cigarettes because although he finds them a nuisance, he does not believe they deserve the death penalty.
None of this is surprising for those of us who follow these types of incidents closely, but it’s refreshing to see the New York Times dedicate a significant amount of time and research to investigate what took place in the days leading to Garner’s death as well as the months following his death, which sparked a national awareness of police abuse that had been lacking in this country.
After all, it is obvious that the ones who should have been doing the investigating were doing everything and anything to avoid conducting a serious investigation.