The Justice Department opened an investigation into the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island, New York, man who died when a New York City Police Department officer put him in an unsanctioned chokehold in July, Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Wednesday. A New York grand jury decided not to indict the officer responsible for Garner’s death on Wednesday, sparking national criticism just a week after a St. Louis grand jury did not indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown in suburban Ferguson.
“We have all seen the video of Mr. Garner's arrest. His death, of course, was a tragedy. All lives must be valued. All lives,” Holder said, appearing to reference the popular protest phrase “black lives matter” that has been seen on protest signs in Ferguson and across social media.
“This is not a New York issue or a Ferguson issue alone,” he continued. “Those who have protested peacefully across our great nation following the grand jury's decision in Ferguson have made that clear.”
The probe will investigate whether Garner's civil rights were infringed upon during his arrest and death. The DOJ will also conduct a "complete review of the materials gathered," during the initial NYPD investigation into Garner's death. Holder said the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office had been watching the case closely since Garner's death.
The Justice Department is in the middle of a separate but similar investigation into the death of 18-year-old Brown, an unarmed black man fatally shot by a white police officer. A grand jury also decided not to indict Wilson in that case last week.
The grand jury decision sparked protests across New York City and a social media campaign under the hashtags #ICantBreath and #EricGarner. The former refers to Garner’s pleas to police officers as they held him down, suffocating him. Police officers restrained Garner during an argument after police approached him for selling untaxed, loose cigarettes outside of a store in Tompkinsville. A city medical examiner determined in July that his death was a homicide caused by compression of the neck and chest, exacerbated by Garner’s obesity, asthma and hypertension.
“As the brother of a retired police officer, I've seen that the vast majority of law enforcement officers perform their duties valiantly,” Holder said. “It is for their sake that we must seek to heal the breakdown in trust we have seen.”
The American Civil Liberties Union released a petition this week urging the DOJ to ban racial profiling by police following the Ferguson grand jury decision and added today that the grand jury decision to not indict Garner was further evidence that there is a systemic problem with racial profiling and a lack of police accountability countrywide.
“[The Garner decision] follows an appalling national pattern where police officers use excessive and sometimes fatal force against people of color and are frequently not held responsible,” the petition read.