NEW YORK – A New York City man died during an arrest — partially captured on amateur video — during which a plain-clothes police officer placed him in what appeared be a choke hold while several others brought him to the ground and struggled to place him in handcuffs.
Internal affairs investigators and prosecutors announced inquiries Friday into the death of Eric Garner, who died the evening before outside a Staten Island beauty salon. Garner, 43, had a heart attack as he struggled with officers trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes, police said. An autopsy was scheduled for Friday.
Partial video of the confrontation obtained by the New York Daily News shows an officer placing what appears to be a choke hold on the 6-foot-3, 350-pound Garner, who can be heard complaining repeatedly that he can't breathe as at least four other officers bring him down. He then apparently loses consciousness.
The video shows the officer who apparently choked Garner using his hands to push Garner's face into the sidewalk.
"It was very troubling," Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference Friday, promising a thorough investigation. "I watched it the same way a family member would watch it, and it was very sad to watch."
Police Commissioner William Bratton said the officer depicted in the video appeared to have employed a choke hold, the use of which is prohibited in the NYPD patrol guide because it can be fatal.
"Now the investigation will determine — was the actions that they took appropriate to the resistance that they were experiencing," he said.
Ramsey Orta, 22, shot the video posted by the newspaper. He told The Associated Press on Friday that he was sitting with Garner and discussing weekend plans before the confrontation with police. Garner had just broken up a fight between two other men when the police approached him, claiming they'd observed him selling loose cigarettes, Orta said.
"Before they even grabbed him, he told them he wasn't feeling good and that's why I pulled the camera out and started recording," said Orta, adding that Garner was asthmatic. "They could've just hopped out on the guys who were fighting, but they didn't bother to ask. They just jumped straight on him."
Garner has been arrested 31 times since 1988 on charges such as drug possession, selling untaxed cigarettes and assault, police said. He was last arrested in May for selling untaxed cigarettes, court records show. Since 2009, he was arrested nine different times for selling such cigarettes, police said.
In the video, a clearly irate Garner shouts that he hasn't done anything wrong.
"Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today," Garner shouts. "I'm minding my business please just leave me alone."
Verbally de-escalating confrontations with suspects should be an officer's primary objective but once a situation gets physical — despite what any departmental directive might dictate — the ensuing interaction can feel like a street fight, experts said.
"The hard truth about street policing is there's a tremendous amount of improvisation," said Eugene O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "(Officers) get some very generalized guidance, typically, which is not very valuable once you have to make the decision to use force."
Garner's family will join the Rev. Al Sharpton at a Saturday rally to call for a full investigation, Sharpton's National Action Network announced.
Patrick J. Lynch, president of the powerful Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, cautioned against drawing conclusions before the results of the official probe were released.
"Not wanting to be arrested does not grant an individual the right to resist arrest nor does it free the officers of the obligation to make the arrest," he said.
This is not the first time the use of a choke hold has grabbed headlines.
Twenty years ago, police officer Francis X. Livoti was dismissed from the NYPD and convicted by a federal jury for violating the civil rights of a Bronx man prosecutors say died after Livoti used a choke hold on him in 1994. Livoti has denied he used a choke hold, insisting Anthony Baez died form an asthma attack.
On Friday, Jonathan DeGroat stood with about 25 people on the sidewalk where Garner was arrested, scrawling messages such as "RIP Big E" and consoling one another.
"We need more courtesy and professional respect," he said, calling for the criminal prosecution of the officer. "He needs to feel how we feel. Justice needs to be served or there will never be peace."