NEW YORK — A white New York City police officer was cleared Wednesday in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes — a case that sparked outrage and drew comparisons to the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
The decision by the Staten Island grand jury not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo added to the tensions that have simmered in the city since the July 17 death of Eric Garner. In the neighborhood where Garner died, people reacted with angry disbelief and chants of "Eric Garner."
His father, Benjamin Carr, urged calm and said the ruling made no sense.
"It's just a license to kill a black man," he said, calling the justice system "not worth a damn."
Jennie Chambers works nearby and saw Garner daily.
"Cold-blooded murder!" she said. "We saw it on TV, it's on video. The whole world saw it. Ferguson, now us."
In his first public comments on the death, Pantaleo said he prays for Garner's family and hopes they accept his condolences.
"I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can't protect themselves," he said in the written statement. "It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner."
Police union officials and Pantaleo's lawyer argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a banned maneuver, because Garner was resisting arrest. They said his poor health was the main reason he died.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the grand jury found "no reasonable cause" to bring charges. The grand jury could have considered a range of charges, from murder to a lesser offense such as reckless endangerment.
"I am actually astonished based on the evidence of the videotape, and the medical examiner, that this grand jury at this time wouldn't indict for anything," said a lawyer for Garner's family, Jonathan Moore.
Garner's family planned a news conference later in the day with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled his planned appearance at the annual Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting to hold a news conference at a Staten Island church while citywide protests started to gather steam.
"Today's outcome is one that many in our city did not want," he said in a statement. "Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest."
City leaders weighed in, some expressing sadness and outrage and urging a federal probe. City Council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus denounced the decision.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Garner family who now join the ranks of the families of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown who have not only tragically lost a son, husband and father, but have now been denied justice," according to a statement.
A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the Internet showed the 43-year-old Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner's neck in what appeared to be a chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy.
The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, was heard repeatedly gasping, "I can't breathe!"
A second video surfaced that showed police and paramedics appearing to make no effort to revive Garner while he lay motionless on the ground. He later died at a hospital.
As with 18-year-old Michael Brown's death in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, the Garner case sparked protests, accusations of racist policing and calls for federal prosecutors to intervene. But unlike the Missouri protests, the demonstrations in New York remained mostly peaceful.
The case also prompted Police Commissioner William Bratton to order officers at the nation's largest police department to undergo retraining on use of force.
The medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. A forensic pathologist hired by Garner's family, Dr. Michael Baden, agreed with those findings, saying there was hemorrhaging on Garner's neck indicative of neck compressions.
While details on the grand jurors were not disclosed, Staten Island is the most politically conservative of the city's five boroughs and home to many police and firefighters.
Donovan said the investigation was four months long and included 38 interviews and 22 witness accounts. The panel began hearing evidence in late September, including the video, autopsy results and testimony by Pantaleo. He filed a court order to release information on the investigation.
Pantaleo had been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty while the case was under investigation. Bratton said Pantaleo would be suspended while the NYPD conducts an internal probe that could result in administrative charges.
In anticipation of the announcement on the grand jury decision, police officials met with community leaders on Staten Island to head off a repeat of the response in Ferguson, where a grand jury decided not to indict the white officer who shot the black teen. Demonstrations there resulted in more than 100 arrests and destruction of 12 commercial buildings by fire.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Jonathan Lemire contributed to the report.