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Eric Garner's family gets $5.9 million settlement from New York City

  1. New York City has reached a $5.9 million settlement with the family of Eric Garner, who filed a wrongful-death claim after a New York City police officer killed Garner on July 17, the New York Times's J. David Goodman reported.
  2. In December, a Staten Island grand jury has decided not to indict New York City Police officer Daniel Pantaleo for Garner's death.
  3. Garner, who was unarmed at the time of his death, died after Pantaleo put him in a chokehold as multiple NYPD officers tried to detain him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
  4. Garner's death is one of many police killings of black men and boys in the past year, which have fostered protests against racial disparities in police use of force.

The controversy around Eric Garner's death

Eric Garner

The scene of Eric Garner's funeral. (Getty Images News)

Eric Garner was a 43-year-old, 6-foot-3, 350-pound father of six who was killed in Staten Island on July 17 after an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold, which is prohibited by NYPD policy.

A medical examiner deemed Garner's death a homicide, according to the Associated Press. Garner was killed by "the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police," said medical examiner spokesperson Julie Bolcer.

Police stopped Garner for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner had been previously arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes in May, police told CNN. He had one pack of untaxed cigarettes when police moved in, according to New York Daily News.

Garner's death was captured on video. One video, reported by the New York Daily News, shows multiple police officers pulling Garner to the ground, with one officer grabbing the 43-year-old in a chokehold. Garner could be heard saying, "I can't breathe," numerous times before he died. Police justified their actions by arguing Garner was resisting arrest.

Warning: graphic video footage

Another video, reported by the New York Post, shows that neither cops nor emergency medical respondents gave medical assistance to Garner as he lay unconscious on a sidewalk for at least six minutes.

Warning: graphic video footage

Daniel Pantaleo is the police officer who killed Garner

Daniel Pantaleo, a white, 29-year-old police officer with eight years on the force, put Garner in the chokehold that caused his death.

Following the grand jury decision, Pantaleo released a statement through his union: "I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves. It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss."

Eric Garner memorial

A memorial for Eric Garner. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images News)

Pantaleo was previously accused of false arrest and violating police procedures in two lawsuits, according to court records reported by the New York Daily News. In one lawsuit, two black plaintiffs each won $15,000 after claiming they'd been falsely arrested in 2012 and forced to publicly strip for a search.

Unnamed sources told New York Daily News that Pantaleo and other officers involved in the arrest have received death threats following Garner's deaths, and they've remained away from their homes as a result.

Pantaleo and Justin Damico, another officer involved in the arrest, were placed on desk duty following Garner's death.

The grand jury only considered charges for Pantaleo, according to the New York Times. Other officers were granted immunity.

Four emergency medical respondents were also placed on unpaid leave pending an investigation into whether they adequately treated Garner when they found him lying on a sidewalk, according to the New York Post. But all four have been or are being reinstated, reported.

Garner's death became a national controversy

Al Sharpton

Al Sharpton visited New York City in support of Eric Garner. (Yana Paskova/Getty Images News)

To some, Garner's death embodies what many see as clear racial disparities in the criminal justice system and police use of force.

Black Americans are disproportionately likely to be stopped, arrested, and killed by police, according to the available, limited FBI data. These racial disparities remain even in situations in which a shooting victim wasn't attacking anyone else. Some of these victims were instead killed while allegedly fleeing, committing a felony, or resisting arrest.

killed by police - circumstances

There have been several high-profile police shootings in the past year involving black men and boys. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in a highly contentious shooting that sparked nationwide protests. In Ohio, 22-year-old John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice were both killed after police mistook toy guns they were carrying for actual weapons. In Utah, police killed Darrien Hunt as he fled after an encounter in which police said Hunt attacked them with a decorative sword. In Baltimore, Freddie Gray died while in police custody, leading to protests and some riots across the city.

How grand juries work

jury box

A view of the jury box in a courtroom. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

The decision not to indict Pantaleo was made by a Staten Island grand jury. During grand jury proceedings, jurors are presented with evidence and asked to decide whether someone should be charged with a crime. If they choose to indict, the case goes to court. If they don't, the case effectively dies.

Grand jury proceedings are typically secret. Participants are supposed to stay quiet about the hearings, even after a decision is reached. Leaks during the hearings are grounds for restarting the entire process.

The prosecutor has almost complete control as to what evidence the grand jury sees and hears. Since prosecutors have so much control over the evidence, getting an indictment is generally perceived as easy. As Vox's Amanda Taub wrote, "The joke within the legal profession is that a decent prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict 'a ham sandwich.'" So it's surprising that the grand jury did not indict in this case.

A key question: When is a cop allowed to kill a civilian?

Two Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s, Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor, set the legal framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable.

Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, told Vox's Dara Lind. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — what departments call the "defense-of-life" standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.

The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger explained, comes from Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He'd stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn't shoot every felon who tried to escape. But as Klinger said, "They basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you've got a violent person who's fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."

The key to both of the legal standards — defense-of-life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.

That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who survived his encounter with police officers, but who was treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broke his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack. The court didn't rule on whether the officers' treatment of him had been justified, but it said the officers couldn't justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.

What's "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,'" said Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies.

In general, officers are given lot of legal room to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.

Police are rarely prosecuted for killing civilians

Police are very rarely prosecuted for killing civilians — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.

"There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility," David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Vox. "And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction."

If police are charged, they're very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.

So it's not too surprising that Garner's case didn't go to trial. But in the end the city was forced to pay out a rather large sum for the homicide.

Watch: Why filming the police is so important

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