Chokehold Case Sparks Protests, Concern in San Diego

Reaction in San Diego to the grand jury investigation of a New York City police homicide case in has been a far cry from the raw emotions that have spilled onto the streets of Manhattan and beyond.

But there's no shortage of outrage and concern here about the process that resulted in no “true bill” of indictment of the officer most involved.

The back story, which unfolded in mid-July: 43-year-old Eric Garner was confronted by police for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk.

He wound up dead of asphyxiation, the homicidal result – according to medical examiners -- of a chokehold applied by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, one of several officers who had tackled Garner.

There was lengthy, seemingly tell-tale cellphone video recorded by an onlooker.

But the grand jury apparently didn't think it told the whole story.

Pantaleo’s critics are amazed that the officers' treatment of Eric Garner didn't amount to probable cause for an indictment, and are asking whether police had probable cause for taking Garner down.

The incident, and the lack of a grand jury indictment, were denounced during an organized labor rally outside the NBC Building downtown Thursday morning.

Demonstrators argued there are separate approaches of law enforcement and justice for white citizens and "people of color."

“Racial profiling is illegal in this country,” said Emmanuel Wimer, who added that he had been arrested during the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the August slaying of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.

“There’s no accountability by the police whenever they harass us,” Wimer added. “It’s the whole system all over, and it’s completely corrupt.”

Said another demonstrator, Chula Vista resident Kathy Radinovsky: "They have to be able to stand back a little and really think about what's going on: 'What's in jeopardy here?' Certainly a few cigarettes is not worth encountering someone … this makes me sad, and I think it's a matter of judgment on the part of the police. Unfortunately, the grand jury has to follow the law. And apparently the law is very precise in these kinds of situations."

Legal observers say that while camera images and video sequences may not lie, they don't always convey the whole truth – and that grand jurors have a broad mandate:

"You have to look at the entire range of evidence,” explains Dan Eaton, an African American attorney whose law practice is downtown. “ The court of public opinion does not apply the same standards as the court of law. That's why the court of public opinion has reached a very different conclusion.”

Eaton noted that while video-hawks in the Court of Public Opinion figured the incident would bring a slam-dunk criminal case, the Staten Island grand jury just couldn't work backwards from an eyeball rush to judgment.

"What is involved here, it seems to me, is filtering information through what it is you believe the outcome ought to be,” he said. “And that's just not the way the criminal justice system at any level, from law enforcement through trial and sentencing, works – and can’t, if we are going to be ‘a nation of laws and not of men.' "

Meantime, the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a separate investigation into whether Garner's civil rights were violated.

Legal analysts say there's a high bar of proof needed to issue criminal charges and linking the officers' action to racial bias.

"It would be great to have our system on better display,” said Omar Passons, another local African-American attorney, who predicts fallout from the Garner case will be more disenchanting about how the wheels of justice are turning for African Americans.

"It creates this frustration -- this sense that we haven't made as much progress as we really need to, as many people often sort of see that we do in other regards,” Passons said. ”This is an American problem. And it's one that we really need to confront as a society in terms of people not feeling safe and secure."

NBC 7 reached out Thursday to the San Diego Police Officers Association and County Deputy Sheriffs Association, seeking comment on the Garner case; so far, no responses.

A spokesman for San Diego's Black Police Officers Association said its vice president is drafting a written statement.

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