NYC took quick precautions after in-custody death

August 20, 2014
View photos
FILE - In this July 23, 2014 file photo, Eric Garner's body lies in a casket during his funeral at Bethel Baptist Church in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Garner died in police custody after an officer placed him in an apparent chokehold. Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan announced Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, that an extra grand jury will be impaneled to hear evidence next month in the July 17 death of Garner. Donovan says his decision is based on his office's investigation and the medical examiner's ruling that the death was homicide. (AP Photo/New York Daily News, Julia Xanthos, Pool, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — The police killings of two unarmed black men came barely three weeks apart, generating immediate — and potentially volatile — outrage.

But compared to the violent aftermath of Michael Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the fallout from the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York now seems notable for what's been absent: no guns pointed at raging protestors, no billows of tear gas, no lengthy delay in revealing an officer's name, no National Guard troops.

The relative calm in New York followed a carefully calibrated response by city and police officials intended to neutralize possible unrest. The response drew on the lessons from other high-profile use-of-force cases involving black victims that roiled the city in the late 1990s.

"What you want in a democracy is the ability express your concerns, but you don't want it to spill over into disorder," Police Commissioner William Bratton said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "I think we've had a very informed and reasonable response to the issues raised by everybody. There's been no violence."

Initial outrage over Garner's death on July 17 was fueled by an amateur video showing an arresting officer appearing to put him in a chokehold — banned under police policy — and Garner gasping "I can't breathe" before falling unconscious. The next day Mayor Bill de Blasio postponed a family vacation, spoke with African-American community leaders and called a news conference with Bratton.

De Blasio called the death a "terrible tragedy" and the video "very troubling." Bratton conceded that "this would appear to have been a chokehold." Both promised a thorough investigation.

Officials say local police commanders reached out to community activists and offered condolences to Garner's family. On July 19, two days after the death, the NYPD released the name of the officer and announced he had been placed on desk duty. On July 31, de Blasio and Bratton were photographed seated next to the Rev. Al Sharpton at a City Hall roundtable about community concerns.

Demonstrations after Garner's death have been peaceful, even after the medical examiner ruled it a homicide. A rally in Times Square last week protesting the deaths of both Michael Brown and Garner resulted in five arrests for minor offenses, but no serious clashes. Police officials said Tuesday that they are in contact with organizers of a Sharpton-led march planned for Saturday — an effort to preserve calm headed by a Community Affairs Division staffed with hundreds of officers citywide.

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan also announced that an extra grand jury will be asked to hear evidence next month in Garner's death.

The challenges harken back to the torture of Abner Louima with a broken broomstick by an officer in a police station bathroom in 1997 and the death of Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets in 1999 by four white officers searching for an armed rapist. Both cases sparked demonstrations resulting in hundreds of arrests and frayed then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's already tense relationship with the black community.

But Howard Safir, who served as police commissioner under Giuliani amid both crises, says conditions could have been worse if city and police officials hadn't taken swift and deliberate steps to keep the peace. During a closed-door meeting in the aftermath of the Louima assault, it was decided he and the mayor should visit Louima in the hospital and meet with community leaders in Brooklyn, Safir recalled on Tuesday.

Similarly, the pair decided to attend Diallo's funeral after the administration concluded, "This one has legs and we have to get on top of it real quick," he said.

One measure used to quell unrest was to negotiate with Diallo demonstrators and convince them to use designated protest areas policed by officers in unimposing "soft uniforms" — windbreakers and baseball caps.

The department then, as now, also benefited from racial diversity in its ranks, experience with crowd control at large events like the New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square and a robust community affairs operation geared toward developing relationships in communities before tragedy strikes, Safir said.

"In the final analysis, police officers are human beings who make mistakes," he said. "You have to be prepared to deal with it."