Elected Officials Call for Justice for Eric Garner — And More Cameras

Public Advocate Tish James speaks at a rally on Eric Garner's death held by the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the City Council. (Jillian Jorgensen/Observer)

Public Advocate Tish James speaks at a rally on Eric Garner’s death held by the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the City Council. (Jillian Jorgensen/Observer)

Outside City Hall Tuesday, city and state elected officials called for justice for Eric Garner — and more cameras recording cops on city streets.

“In New York City, all street encounters should be videoed,” Public Advocate Tish James declared at a rally led by the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. “All street encounters should be videoed to avoid this from happening again.”

Mr. Garner, 43, died after police used what appears to be a chokehold to bring him to the ground during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. The incident was caught on camera by several civilians and the video — which Mayor Bill de Blasio declared he was “very troubled” by — was widely circulated by news organizations.

“I am unable to turn away from this compelling indictment of man’s inhumanity to man,” Councilwoman Debi Rose, who represents the Staten Island district where Mr. Garner lived and died, said. “When these images of blatant indifference play over and over, I am sickened by the cavalier attitude of all involved, and frightened, frightened — and so are my constituents, are frightened — that no one took pause to re-think their actions. Did they not hear what the whole world heard? The constrained cries of ‘I can’t breathe?’ over and over and over, until there wasn’t any more?”

The video provides a clear picture of the arrest — and both Mr. de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said it seems to show a chokehold, prohibited by NYPD rules. Several elected officials said, without the video, the officers involved might not had been scrutinized.

State Senator Bill Perkins pointed to a Daily News report showing the first reports filed by police higher-ups make no mention of a chokehold being used, or of Mr. Garner’s distress.

“Now in cases like this, it’s clear that there needs to be videotaping — because the whitewash is around the corner. The body doesn’t get cold before the story, the line, is created,” Mr. Perkins said, to blame Mr. Garner for his behavior or his health problems.  “But it was taped by an innocent bystander. A concerned New Yorker had recorded the truth.”

The police precinct where the incident took place, the 120th, was actually targeted for a pilot program suggested by federal judge Shira Scheindlin in her stop-and-frisk ruling that calls for cameras to be worn by police. 

Councilman Jumaane Williams said when he was detained by police at the West Indian Day Parade, it was difficult to substantiate anything that wasn’t on video.

“If there was no video for this, we would be here listening to the police account of what happened — with no chokehold mentioned,” Mr. Williams said.

Added Councilman Andy King, co-chair of the caucus: “It protects everyone, the officer as well as the public.”

At one point, in introducing Councilman Dan Garodnick, who is white, Mr. King noted the caucus should be outraged if any New Yorker had died in such a way. But beside him, Councilwoman Inez Barron noted, though not into the microphones, “It doesn’t happen to white folks. It happens to black folks.”

Others, too, placed the blame for Mr. Garner’s death squarely on NYPD racism.

“The murder by a New York City Police Officer — maybe not in blue, undercover, once again — has raised a question of racism. I cannot believe that if this brother was not black that a chokehold would have been used against him,” Mr. Perkins said.

Ms. Rose, whose diverse district includes both many minorities, many white residents, and many police officers, quoted Marvin Gay’s “What’s Goin’ On,” and said she was set to meet with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on Staten Island this afternoon.

Others noted the tension she may face in her district. Not present were Staten Island’s other two Council members, Steve Matteo and Vincent Ignizio, and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo did not attend a rally held by Al Sharpton this weekend that drew several citywide lawmakers. 

“It is not easy for Debi to be in Staten Island representing a community that is fractured,” Council Public Safety Chair Vanessa Gibson said. “But the grace of God is with her and she has a collective support that is standing with her each and every day.”

More than once during the hourlong press conference in the hot sun, elected officials said the incident would be a test for Mr. de Blasio, who was elected with the support of black and Latino voters looking for a change in how the NYPD deals with their communities.

But so far, Ms. Rose said, she has been pleased with the administration’s response — it has been transparent, she said, and offered her full access — and added she doesn’t begrudge the mayor being in Italy.

Moving forward, she said she was an “actionable plan” that includes sensitivity training.

“I believe that the commanding officers in these precincts, when they recognize that they have bad actors, they should be able to bench them keep them off the street,” she told the Observer.

Mr. King, who also called for the NYPD to make Mr. Garner’s family whole monetarily, added that it was key the mayor called for a fast investigation.

“We want the mayor to be the leader that we know he is,” Mr. King said.