NEW YORK -- New York City police officers and their supporters say an unarmed black man who died when a police officer applied what appeared to be an unauthorized chokehold probably contributed to his own death by being in bad health and resisting arrest.
A grand jury's decision Wednesday to clear the white police officer in the death of Eric Garner sparked protests from New York to San Francisco and added to an ongoing national debate about race and the police's use of deadly force.
It followed last week's decision by another grand jury not to charge the white officer who shot and killed unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Garner, 43, died in July as officers were attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. His death was caught on video, and showed Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. Officer Daniel Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner's neck in what appeared to be a chokehold, which is banned under the New York Police Department's policy.
Garner was overweight and in poor health. Police and their supporters argue that if he could repeatedly say, "I can't breathe," as he did several times, it means he could breathe.
"Police officers feel like they are being thrown under the bus," said Patrick Lynch, president of the police union.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the case underscores the NYPD's need to improve relations with minorities.
But Lynch said: "What we did not hear is this: You cannot go out and break the law. What we did not hear is that you cannot resist arrest. That's a crime."
At the demonstrations over the past few days, protesters have confronted police. Signs read: "NYPD: Blood on your hands," ''Racism kills" and "Hey officers, choke me or shoot me." Some demonstrators shouted, "NYPD pigs!" More than 280 people have been arrested, and more demonstrations were planned.
In private and in Internet chat rooms, officers say they feel demoralized, misunderstood and "all alone."
Some are advising each other that the best way to preserve their careers is to stop making arrests like that of Garner's, in defiance of the NYPD's campaign of cracking down on minor "quality of life" offenses as a way to discourage serious crime.
The fatal encounter occurred in July after Pantaleo and other police officers responded to complaints about Garner, a 43-year-old father of six.
The medical examiner later found that a chokehold resulted in Garner's death, but also that asthma, obesity and cardiovascular disease were contributing factors.
As the video sparked accusations of excessive force, the police unions mounted a counter-narrative: that Garner would still be alive if he had obeyed orders, that his poor health was the main cause of his death and that Pantaleo had used an authorized takedown move -- more like a headlock than a chokehold -- to subdue him.
While the grand jury proceedings were secret, Pantaleo's lawyer has said that the officer testified that he never tried to choke Garner and did not believe the man was in mortal danger.