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Tension mounts in police cases

Activists hope for federal prosecution as officers are cleared on local levels

Tom Hays And Colleen Long Associated Press

NEW YORK – From the White House to the streets of some of America’s biggest cities, the New York chokehold case converged with the Ferguson shooting and investigations out of South Carolina and Cleveland to stir a national conversation Thursday about racial justice and police use of force.

A day after a grand jury cleared a white New York City officer in the death of a black man, civil rights leaders pinned their hopes on a promised federal investigation. Demonstrators protested for a second night in New York and turned out in such cities as Denver, Detroit and Minneapolis. And politicians and others talked about the need for better police training, body cameras and changes in the grand jury process to restore faith in the legal system.

“A whole generation of officers will be trained in a new way,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed as he and his police commissioner outlined plans to teach officers how to communicate better with people on the street.

President Barack Obama weighed in, saying one of the chief issues at stake is “making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally.”

Even before the decision in the Eric Garner case came down, racial tensions were running high because of last week’s grand jury decision not to charge a white officer in the shooting death of black 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Other cases were added to the mix on Thursday:

• In the tiny South Carolina town of Eutawville, a white former police chief was charged with murder in the 2011 shooting of an unarmed black man. Richard Combs’ lawyer accused prosecutors of taking advantage of national outrage toward police to obtain the indictment more than three years after the killing.

• In Cleveland, the U.S. Justice Department and the city reached an agreement to overhaul the police department after federal investigators found that officers use excessive force far too often, causing deep mistrust, especially among blacks. The investigation was prompted chiefly by a 2012 car chase that ended in the deaths of two unarmed people in a hail of 137 bullets.

Still, federal civil rights cases against police officers are exceedingly rare.

That’s largely because federal prosecutors must meet a high standard of proof in showing that police deliberately deprived victims of their civil rights through excessive force, said Alan Vinegrad, a former federal prosecutor.

Federal intervention “doesn’t happen often and it shouldn’t happen often,” said James Jacobs, a constitutional law professor at New York University Law School. “They should only step in when the local prosecution was a sham.”

Activists have claimed that the grand jury investigation of Garner’s death was indeed a sham. An amateur video showed Officer Daniel Pantaleo putting Garner in an apparent chokehold, and the medical examiner said the maneuver contributed to the death.

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