A chokehold used by a police officer on a New York City man during his arrest for selling untaxed, loose cigarettes last month caused his death, the medical examiner announced Friday, ruling it a homicide.
Eric Garner, 43, a black man whose videotaped confrontation with a white police officer has caused widespread outcry and calls by the Rev. Al Sharpton for federal prosecution, was killed by "the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police," said medical examiner spokeswoman Julie Bolcer.
Asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors, she said. In the video, Garner can be heard repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe!"
In Staten Island, where Garner lived at the time of his death, his friends called for justice in response to the medical report.
"You got to lock them up and make them an example," said Doug Brinson. "So the next guy that feels like he want to shoot somebody or choke somebody else, and he says 'OK, I'm not going to choke this guy.'" "I'm not going kill this guy.'"
In a statement, police commissioner Bill Bratton said the department had been informed about the findings of the medical examiner and will continue to cooperate with the Richmond County District Attorney's Office. Chokeholds are prohibited by the New York Police Department. Prosecutors on Staten Island are investigating, and Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Justice Department is "closely monitoring" the probe.
A spokesman for Daniel Donovan, the Staten Island district attorney, said prosecutors were still investigating the death and were awaiting a full autopsy report and death certificate from the medical examiner. Donovan will have to determine whether to empanel a grand jury and charge officers in the death of Garner.
The officer who put Garner in the chokehold was stripped of his gun and badge pending the investigation, and another was placed on desk duty. Two paramedics and two EMTs were suspended without pay. The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, a union representing police officers, released a statement that expressed sympathy for Garner's friends and family but also noted "that if he had not resisted the lawful order of the police officers placing him under arrest, this tragedy would not have occurred."
Police Commissioner William Bratton, who told reporters that the video appeared to show the officer placing Garner in a prohibited chokehold, ordered a top-to-bottom redesigning of use-of-force training in the NYPD in the wake of Garner's death.
But that response hasn't satisfied some, including Sharpton, who in provocative comments Thursday at City Hall called for the officers involved to be charged criminally. He also told Mayor Bill de Blasio that if de Blasio's own half-black teenage son had a different father, he would be a "candidate for a chokehold."
De Blasio said Friday that he wasn't offended by the comments. Later in the day, in response to the medical examiner's announcement, the mayor released a statement in which he stated his administration would work with all the authorities involved in the case to reach a fair outcome. De Blasio also pushed for better relations between the police and the communities they serve and promised to implement changes that would ensure another incident like Garner's never occured.
Sharpton's spokeswoman said Friday that Garner's family would join him Saturday at his National Action Network Harlem headquarters to address the medical examiner's ruling.
Partial video of the July 17 confrontation shows an officer placing a chokehold 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.
Garner's death has also raised criticism of the broken windows theory of policing, a tactic championed by Bratton that posits that cracking down on relatively minor, low-level offenses such as selling loose cigarettes helps suppress more serious crimes. Bratton, with de Blasio's support, has defended the policing tactic despite some calls for it to be discontinued.
With additional reports from the Associated Press