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New York - The wife of a man who died after a police officer used an apparent chokehold to bring him to the ground during an arrest burst into tears Saturday at a Harlem rally in his honor.
An overcome Esaw Garner was escorted from the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, which was packed with hundreds of people. But Sharpton said Thursday's death of 43-year-old Eric Garner while in custody could strain the black community's relationship with the New York Police Department.
"This is going to be a real test to see where policies are in the city now and whether the change that we feel occurred has occurred," Sharpton said, referring to promises made by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton to improve the relationship between officers and the city's minority communities. "We are the only ones in the social setup that has to deal with fear of cops and robbers."
Garner, who was black, was confronted by police trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said. The 6-foot-3, 350-pound Garner became irate, denying the charges and refusing to be handcuffed before one of the officers placed him in what Bratton said appeared to be a chokehold, according to partial video of the encounter obtained by the New York Daily News.
The tactic, which can be fatal, is prohibited by departmental policy.
In the video, Garner, who has been arrested for selling illegal cigarettes numerous times in recent years, says he hasn't done anything wrong.
"Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today," Garner shouts. "I'm minding my business. Please just leave me alone."
As four officers bring him down, Garner is heard gasping, "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" The video shows one officer using his hands to push Garner's face into the sidewalk.
Prosecutors and internal affairs detectives are investigating the death of the father of six and grandfather of two; authorities believe he suffered a heart attack. De Blasio has called the circumstances of his death "very troubling."
More tests are needed to determine the exact cause and manner of Garner's death, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office said.
The mayor's commissioner for community affairs attended the rally and stressed the administration's commitment to strengthening police and community relations.
"We've said from the beginning: Police work best when they have the respect from the community," Marco Carrion said, adding that it's an ongoing process to try to improve the relationship between the NYPD and various communities.
Garner's death evoked memories of a similar incident 20 years ago that likewise sparked outrage.
Police officer Francis Livoti was dismissed from the NYPD and convicted by a federal jury of violating the civil rights of a Bronx man who died after Livoti apparently used a chokehold on him in 1994. Livoti has denied he used a chokehold, insisting Anthony Baez died from an asthma attack. The case remains one of the most high-profile allegations of police brutality in city history.
A funeral for Garner, who went by the nickname Big E, will be held Wednesday at the Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn. Another rally on Staten Island is planned for Saturday afternoon.
Associated Press writer Rachelle Blidner contributed to this report.