TOMPKINSVILLE — A man died after apparently being put in an illegal chokehold by a police officer while being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes outside a Stapleton shop Thursday afternoon, the NYPD said.
Eric Garner, 43, who friends said was asthmatic, was wrestled to the ground by arresting officers outside 202 Bay St., near Victory Boulevard, about 4:45 p.m. One, who was wearing a jersey with the number 99 on it, briefly got him in a choke hold before he pushed Garner's head to the concrete, according to dramatic video published by the Daily News.
"I can't breathe," Garner says at least 11 times as more and more officers swarm around him on the ground, the Daily News video shows.
Garner, who lived in Elm Park, was taken to Richmond University Medical Center and pronounced dead, police said.
The death prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio to call for an investigation by the NYPD and district attorney into the incident.
The Medical Examiner's office will determine Garner's cause of death, the NYPD said.
At a press conference on Friday, Commissioner William Bratton said that from the footage, it appears the officers put Garner in a chokehold, which have been banned by the department.
"Chokeholds are, in fact, prohibited by the New York City Police Department because of the concerns of potential deaths arising from them," Bratton said.
"As defined in the department control guide, this would appear to have been a chokehold but the investigation will seek to make that final determination as part of our investigation," he said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said that his office and other city agencies would work "to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the circumstances of this tragic incident."
"I want to offer my deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Eric Garner, a loving husband, father and grandfather," de Blasio said at the press conference. "Like so many New Yorkers, I was very troubled by the video I reviewed today. I instructed Commissioner Bratton to insure there'll be a full and thorough investigation on this incident."
The Staten Island District Attorney was leading the investigation while working closely with the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau, and Bratton said he already talked to the new Inspector General about the case.
"My office is working along with the NYPD to do a complete and thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Garner’s death," Donovan said in a statement.
The two officers, assigned to the plain clothes anti-crime unit in the 120 precinct, were assigned to desk duty during the investigation, Bratton said.
Even with this incident, de Blasio said that reforms in the NYPD have been made, and change has been made across the city.
"This incident was a tragedy, there will be a very thorough investigation, but if you look at what's happening all over the city, I think you can safely say progress is being made," de Blasio said.
Staten Island Borough President James Oddo extended his condolences to the family and called for the borough to "stand united" during the investigation.
"I would like to extend my heartfelt condolences to the Garner family for their loss. Whenever a tragedy like this occurs, we are presented with difficult questions that must — and will — be answered," Oddo said in a statement.
"While I know that this is a terribly emotional time, not only for Mr. Garner’s family but also for the community, the borough and, indeed, our entire city, we must allow Mayor de Blasio, Police Commissioner Bratton and District Attorney Donovan to conduct their investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Garner’s death."
Pat Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolence Association, demanded a thorough investigation before passing judgement on the officers involved.
"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 in a statement. "In these cases, justice for all involved demands a complete and thorough investigation of all the facts before any conclusions are drawn."
Witnesses said that before the arrest, Garner had walked to a park across the street to break up a fight and then returned to his post outside 202 Bay St.
That's when the officers came over to him and eventually threw him to the ground, according to witnesses and video.
"They put him in a chokehold and put him down on the ground. He couldn't breathe, the position he was in," said George Warnock, who was at a cafe nearby and saw the incident.
"People were yelling at the cops, 'What are you doing to the poor guy?'" Warnock said.
Bay Street neighbors said Garner was a regular on the block.
"He's a real good dude, he wasn't violent, wasn't forceful," said John McCrae, 51, who works at a clothing store near the scene.
Garner was asthmatic and had diabetes, according to McCrae.
"If he wanted to fight you, he couldn't because he couldn't breathe," McCrae said.
Bratton said that police responded to Bay Street, near Tompkins Park, because of complaints from business owners about the illegal sale of cigarettes.
"They repeatedly called to ask police to do something on this violation of the law, that's why officers were directed to the location," he said.
This year alone there have been 98 arrests at that spot, 100 low level summons and 646 calls to 911, Bratton said.
Garner was picked up by police twice before for selling and possession of untaxed cigarettes at the same spot he died. Those arrests were in March and May this year, according to police records.
In August of last year, Garner was arrested at the corner of School Road and Bay Street for driving with a suspended license, according to court documents.
He was also charged with unlawful possession of marijuana, false impersonation and possession or sale of untaxed cigarettes, which was dismissed in January because there was insignificant evidence he intended to sell them, according to the district attorney's office.
Thursday's incident recalled the 1994 death of Anthony Ramon Baez, 29, who died after being put in a chokehold by an officer during a dispute over a touch football game in the Bronx, according to the New York Times.
The officer, Francis X. Livoti, was cleared of criminal charges in a state court, but later convicted in federal court of violating Baez's civil rights. He served four years in prison, the Times reported.
Councilwoman Debi Rose joined family and friends of Garner outside 202 Bay St. on Friday afternoon, from where they marched to the 121 precinct.
Garner's family planned to meet with Al Sharpton at a Saturday press conference at 9:30 a.m. at the headquarters of the National Action Network.