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Investigations, outrage follow police chokehold and Eric Garner’s death

Emerald Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, mourns at the site of her father’s death on a march Saturday. (John Minchillo/AP)

A primer, in case you missed the story over the weekend: Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island man, was put in what looked like a chokehold on Thursday by a New York City police officer and died. The episode was recorded, and after the video was posted by the New York Daily News and viewed thousands of times, outrage and horror began to build.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke on Friday about the “terrible tragedy” that had occurred, briefly delaying a family vacation to Italy due to the situation.

“Like so many New Yorkers I was very troubled by the video I reviewed earlier today,” said de Blasio, speaking to reporters alongside William J. Bratton, the police commissioner.

De Blasio said he has ordered Bratton to make sure there is a full investigation. Prosecutors as well as the police department will look into Garner’s death. It appeared that Garner was selling individual cigarettes — “a seemingly minor quality of life offense,” Bratton noted, but something that sparks complaints and 911 calls — which prompted the officers to confront Garner in the first place, the commissioner said.

“As defined in the department’s patrol guide, this would appear to have been a chokehold,” Bratton said. But he said the final determination depended on what the district attorney and the police department’s own internal affairs find in their investigations.

Chokeholds are prohibited by the New York Police Department, Bratton said, but the department may remind or retrain officers to make sure they know chokeholds are not allowed.

The city medical examiner’s office said Sunday that it had not determined the cause and manner of Garner’s death, refuting reports suggesting that it had already determined that the chokehold didn’t damage Garner’s throat.

News of Garner’s death spread quickly due to the horrific nature of the video, which was followed by a second video that appeared to show Garner lying on the ground for several minutes while police officers waited for emergency personnel. Garner’s death brought to mind the NYPD’s troubled history, something that factored heavily into de Blasio’s mayoral campaign as he criticized stop-and-frisk policies and pledged to mend the relationship between the police and citizens.

After Garner’s death, rallies were held and he was remembered by those who knew him. “He was great to me and his six kids,” his wife told the Daily News. “And a wonderful grandfather.”

“I watched it the same way a family member would watch it, and it was very sad to watch,” de Blasio said Friday. But he said that any final judgment would have to wait until the investigation has concluded.

Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who appeared to put Garner in the chokehold, had to turn in his badge and gun. Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, called that decision by the police department “completely unwarranted” and “absolutely wrong” in a statement.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates complaints against New York police officers, announced that it will study chokehold complaints it has received since 2009. “We’re going to make this chokehold study an agency priority,” Tracy Catapano-Fox, executive director of the agency, said in a statement.

The agency said it had received 1,022 chokehold allegations between 2009 and 2013, fully investigating 462 of them and determining that they couldn’t figure out if a chokehold was used in nearly half of those instances. After Garner’s death, the agency said it will look at what the chokeholds did to the victims during these years, what police officers said during recorded interviews and what was going on when the chokeholds occurred.

This organization had been considered “a toothless tiger” in the past, to quote former City Council speaker Christine Quinn. De Blasio said last week he thinks the “crucially important” agency could be more effective, something he noted when announcing that civil rights attorney Richard Emery would take over the agency. (This announcement came on Thursday, the same day Garner died.)

“Effective policing is by definition constitutional and respectful policing,” Emery said during the announcement of his position last week. He also talked about the importance of “responding fairly and justly and quickly” to complaints that police officers have mistreated people.