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A year after Eric Garner's death, experts say case has spawned important changes

This undated family photo provided by the National

This undated family photo provided by the National Action Network on Saturday, July 19, 2014 shows Eric Garner, who was confronted by police trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said. Credit: AP

On the first anniversary of the NYPD's apparent neckhold killing of Eric Garner during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes, the Justice Department has still not decided on federal charges, but experts say the case has already set in motion potentially far-reaching changes in policing in New York.

Triggered by a viral video showing the 350-pound Garner gasping "I can't breathe" while Officer Daniel Pantaleo held him by the neck, the changes range from an apparent pullback on enforcement of low-level quality-of-life crimes to new rules on who will prosecute police killings.

"There has been a long overdue decrease in proactive policing, and that has not led to an increase in crime," said Eugene O'Donnell, a former officer who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It has focused attention on how much policing is needed."

"I think the video opened the eyes of many New Yorkers and Americans," said civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel. "The public, more than at any time in my lifetime, is beginning to be willing to question police behavior."

The Garner case unfolded July 17, 2014, on Staten Island. Police responding to complaints tried to arrest Garner, a resident of the borough's Tompkinsville section, who would not comply. Pantaleo took him down with an arm bar around the neck, which officials later called a chokehold, which is banned by the NYPD. Garner, 43, was black. Pantaleo, 30, is white.

After Garner lost consciousness, emergency personnel were slow to respond. An autopsy ruled his death a homicide caused by compression of the neck and chest. But a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict Pantaleo in December, sparking citywide protests and a review of possible civil rights charges by federal prosecutors.

Experts consider a federal case unlikely because it would require proof that Pantaleo set out to intentionally violate Garner's rights. Despite the video, the review has been underway for 71/2 months -- more than double the time spent deciding to not bring charges in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last year.

Legal observers attribute that to the high-profile nature of the case, and the high level of attention police killings of unarmed blacks have gotten at the White House.

"Were it not for the fact that this is such a highly politicized case, it's puzzling it would take so long," said Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

O'Donnell speculated that federal prosecutors want to leave no stone unturned before deciding not to proceed, and may be searching for any evidence -- emails, comments to other cops -- of a racial animus in Pantaleo's background.

"It's a very hard case to make because the standard is very high," he said. "If you uncover some motive to go to hurt Garner, that could turn the case around."

Pantaleo, 30, of Staten Island, has been on desk duty since Garner's death. In addition to the prospect of a federal prosecution, he could also face NYPD discipline, including losing his job. He reportedly hopes to return to police work. His lawyer did not return a call.

Garner's family settled its legal case against the city on Tuesday for $5.9 million, but family members said afterward that accountability in court for Pantaleo was more important to them. They will attend a rally to push for prosecution outside the federal court in Brooklyn on Saturday.

"This is not a victory," said Gwen Carr, Garner's mother, at a news conference after the settlement. "The victory will be when we get justice."

The Garner case has also spurred action on a broader reform agenda pushed by the family and other advocates. In one key change, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week named Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to investigate police killings of unarmed people, instead of leaving it to local prosecutors with deep ties to the police.

At the NYPD, the uproar over Garner's death and complaints about the role of police in minority communities seems to have marked a turning point away from aggressive "broken windows" policing tactics of the past that focused on low-level "quality of life" crimes.

In the first six months of 2015, arrests were down by 35,000 -- mostly in the categories of misdemeanors and violations -- and criminal court summonses were down by 47,000. Commissioner William Bratton initiated new training on communication with the public and de-escalating confrontations, and promised a return to a community policing model.

Bratton has not officially jettisoned the broken windows approach, however, and some critics fear changes may be cosmetic without deeper reforms that address tougher discipline for cops who use excessive force and harsher tactics in minority neighborhoods.

Pantaleo and the other officers involved with Garner have yet to even face departmental discipline, noted Monifa Bandele of Communities United for Police Reform.

"Broken windows can be rebranded and reshaped," she said, "but as long as there's no accountability if people don't follow their training, that trust and community relationship is never going to happen."

"We think community policing is old wine in a new bottle," said Bob Gangi of the Police Reform Organizing Project. "So long as de Blasio and Bratton are committed to broken windows policing . . . no extra bell or whistle you attach will change reality."

But others are more optimistic. O'Donnell says whatever terminology is used, new training will make tragedies like Garner less likely when police do take someone into custody, and police have been reminded that arrests should never be taken lightly.

"They have learned," he said, "that using force is monumental."

With Anthony M. DeStefano

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