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September 16, 2014

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Vigil, march for man who died in N.Y. police custody

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AP Photo/John Minchillo

Ellisha Flagg, sister of Eric Garner, cries during a vigil demanding justice for Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died while being arrested by New York City police, Tuesday, July 22, 2014, in New York.

NEW YORK — Demonstrators marched through the streets on Tuesday to demand swift justice for a man who died in police custody.

"It ends today," the crowd of Eric Garner's relatives, friends and local elected officials chanted as they walked from a Staten Island park across from where police confronted him last Thursday to the precinct where the officers involved were stationed.

There, Garner's relatives climbed to the top of a stairway near the entrance and lit candles in his memory while the rest of the crowd, about 100 people in all, remained on the sidewalk behind police barricades.

An amateur video of Garner's arrest, on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes, shows an officer putting him in an apparent chokehold after he refuses to be handcuffed.

The tactic is banned by the New York Police Department but has been the subject of more than 1,000 complaints to the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board over the last five years.

Garner's sister, Ellisha Flagg, said at a vigil at Tompkinsville Park that the chokehold likely exacerbated the effects of the 6-foot-3, 350-pound Garner's asthma, a condition he battled since childhood.

"The little bit of breath he had, they took it from him," Flagg said.

The video of the arrest shows an officer putting his arm around Garner's neck as Garner is taken to the ground and his face is pushed into the sidewalk. Garner, before losing consciousness, is heard yelling repeatedly, "I can't breathe!"

Flagg, directing her comment to police, said: "If somebody is telling you something, listen to them."

Police Commissioner William Bratton said Tuesday the police department would retrain its officers on the use of force.

"The department needs to do a lot more in terms of training," Bratton said at a news conference.

That training includes sending a team of officers next week to Los Angeles, where Bratton served as commissioner for seven years, to learn how that city's police department modified its use-of-force protocols after several high-profile episodes of brutality.

Autopsy results are pending in Garner's death, which has sparked protests, a criminal probe and a warning by the Rev. Al Sharpton that Garner's family would explore asking for a federal civil rights investigation.

A funeral for Garner, who was 43, is scheduled for Wednesday evening in Brooklyn.

Garner's death has raised questions about the NYPD's embrace of the "broken windows" theory of policing.

Critics say the theory — that low-grade lawlessness such as drinking in public and making graffiti can invite greater disorder including traffic fatalities and violent crime — can needlessly put nonviolent people at risk and fuel tensions in minority communities.

Such enforcement "leads to confrontations like this," City Councilwoman Inez Barron said at a news conference about Garner's death.

Bratton vowed to stick with the program, saying the NYPD plans to next target illegal vendors who rent bikes in Central Park. He credited a similar crackdown on subway fare beaters in the 1990s with being the "tipping point" for a drastic reduction in overall crime in the subway trains.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaking at the Garner vigil Tuesday night, said she is determined to make sure his death is fully and quickly investigated.

"It's difficult to avoid being overwhelmed by sadness, by anger and a deeply disturbing concern that we've all been here before," she said.

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