NY policeman not charged in death of black suspect

NEW YORK - A New York grand jury on Wednesday decided not to charge a white police officer in the choking death of a black man, days after a similar decision sparked renewed unrest in Missouri.

Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by New York police Officer Daniel Pantaleo while being arrested on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island.

Graphic cellphone footage of the July 17 confrontation showed Garner, who has asthma, complaining "I can't breathe" after being bundled onto the ground by several police officers.

Pantaleo can be seen standing behind Garner and wrapping an arm around his neck. Police officials have said Garner was resisting arrest.

The 43-year-old father-of-six fell unconscious and was declared dead at a local hospital.

Chokeholds are outlawed by New York police after previous controversial incidents.

"After deliberation on the evidence presented in this matter, the grand jury found that there was no reasonable cause to vote an indictment," Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan said in a statement.

Garner's death is one of a string of high-profile, racially-charged incidents in which white officers have been accused of using unreasonable force or being too quick to fire at black suspects.

'An American problem'

In brief comments following the grand jury decision, President Barack Obama addressed the inherent mistrust many residents have of police.

"We're seeing too many instances where people do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly," Obama said.

"In some cases, those may be misperceptions, but in some cases that's a reality, and it is incumbent upon all of us as Americans...that we recognise this is an American problem and not just a black problem or a brown problem."

The Aug 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white officer in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, sparked consecutive nights of violence and has become a rallying cry for African American communities across the country fed up with what they say is racially biased policing.

A grand jury in that case also decided not to charge the officer involved.

New York authorities were bracing for an outbreak of the sort of violence that erupted in Ferguson.

There was no immediate sign of unrest, though many people gathered in Times Square.

"Today's outcome is one that many in our city did not want," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

"Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through non-violent protest. We trust that those unhappy with today's grand jury decision will make their views known in the same peaceful, constructive way."

In recent days protesters have demonstrated - largely peacefully - in New York to decry what they say is the over-reliance of aggressive tactics by police, especially against black people.

New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said people were welcome to demonstrate.

But "if they engage in criminal activity, such as vandalism - actual crime - they will be arrested," he said.

Wearable cameras for cops

A New York medical examiner had ruled Garner's death a homicide caused in part by the chokehold used during the arrest.

De Blasio has said authorities need to address the "underlying reality" highlighted by the death of Brown and Garner in New York.

De Blasio, who is white, has a mixed-race son and said he is well aware of the difficulties young black people can face.

He's a "good, young man...who never would think to do anything wrong, and yet...we've had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police."

De Blasio noted that America is "dealing with centuries of racism."

In another recent high-profile case in the United States, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down by police officers in Ohio while handling a toy pistol.

And in New York, a 28-year-old black man was shot dead for no apparent reason by police in the hallway of a housing project in Brooklyn on Nov 21.

Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Michael Brown's family, said the killings are undermining trust in the US justice system.

"Why are police officers always given special treatment and not held accountable, especially in minority communities?" he told CNN.

Coincidentally on Wednesday, New York authorities announced a pilot programme to equip about three dozen police officers with body cameras to record their behaviour towards the public.

De Blasio hailed the tool as "one of the ways to create a real sense of transparency and accountability."

Garner's family in Oct said they would sue the city and police for US$75 million (S$98.4 million).