Levitt: Garner case a test for de Blasio

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A memorial to Eric Garner on Staten Island. A memorial to Eric Garner on Staten Island. He died after he was taken into police custody. Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES/ Spencer Platt

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Leonard Levitt Leonard Levitt

Leonard Levitt is the author of “NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force."

That Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed his trip to Italy by only a day this weekend suggests he believes the first crisis of his mayoralty is manageable -- at least in the short run.

The crisis? The death of 43-year-old Eric Garner, a 350-pound black man with diabetes and heart problems, who died possibly from an apparent NYPD-banned chokehold. Last week, officers wrestled him to the ground as they attempted to arrest him for the minor infraction of selling untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island.

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The death of the 6-foot-3 Garner may evoke memories of fatal cases involving the NYPD over the last two decades. But it shouldn't.

Garner's death is not comparable to that of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant shot and killed in 1999 in the Bronx by four cops who mistakenly believed he had a gun.

Nor is Garner a victim like Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who in 1997 was sodomized with a broomstick by Officer Justin Volpe in a bathroom of Brooklyn's 70th Precinct.

Nor is Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer shown in a video throwing his arm around Garner's neck to subdue him, the equivalent of Officer Francis Livoti. In 1994, during Bill Bratton's first tour as commissioner, Livoti instigated a confrontation with Anthony Baez, 29, as Baez played street football in the Bronx. Livoti used a chokehold that led to Baez's death.

The officers in the Garner case were sent to clear an area that local merchants had complained was a longtime scene of unlawful activity. Garner, the video shows, resisted arrest.

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It is unclear whether he died as a result of a chokehold. Medical examiner spokeswoman Julie Bolcer said a preliminary autopsy was conducted and that "there is no determination as to the cause and manner of death." She said further studies are underway.

And despite video showing Pantaleo throwing his arm around Garner's neck and Garner repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe," throwing an arm around an arrestee's neck for a second or two is not necessarily a chokehold. Of course, none of this justifies Garner's death. He may or may not have broken the law, but he resisted arrest. Yet he was no threat to anyone. The cops who brought him to the ground were not fighting for their lives.

As the Rev. Al Sharpton, the city's pre-eminent rabble-rouser, put it at a Saturday rally: "The issue is not whether one was selling cigarettes. The issue was how an unarmed man was subjected to a chokehold and the result is he is no longer with us."

As is unfortunately often the case with the NYPD and many African Americans, two distinct narratives have emerged.

The police narrative is that cops were responding to the department's longtime "broken windows" directive, initiated by Bratton in the 1990s, to stamp out minor crimes to prevent major ones.

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The second narrative is that Garner's death was a result of police brutality and racism.

As Communities United for Police Reform, a group that fights discriminatory policing, put it: "Sadly, Mr. Garner is one of too many New Yorkers of color who have unjustly had their lives cut short by police officers over the past decades."

De Blasio, who argued against the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy as a mayoral candidate last year, is in a tough spot. He can't afford to lose the cops by going out too far against them. Pantaleo was placed on modified assignment. Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch has called the modification "a knee-jerk reaction for political reasons."

At the rally, Sharpton refrained from criticizing de Blasio, his supposed ally; Bratton, his new friend; or the media, of which he is now a member.

Instead, he said he had "very serious questions" about whether undue influence by the PBA could undermine a probe.

De Blasio's first crisis may well be manageable in the short run. Let's see what the future brings.

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