By Jonathan Lemire
NEW YORK — Several members of New York's congressional delegation are urging the Department of Justice to investigate the death of a man put in a police chokehold, further complicating first-term Mayor Bill de Blasio's precarious political balancing act as the case has roiled the nation's largest city.
Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke led a group of six Democratic members of the House Black and Latino Caucus who called into question whether the Staten Island district attorney can adequately investigate the case, in which a black man, Eric Garner, was placed in a chokehold by a white police officer.
Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, can be heard on tape shouting "I can't breathe!" Garner, who had asthma, died a short time later. The city medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
Jeffries, outside New York Police Department headquarters on Thursday, said, "We've concluded that to have a fair and impartial investigation that could potentially lead to justice, the federal government has got to get involved."
The district attorney, Republican Daniel Donovan, has a close working relationship with the NYPD and represents a borough that is majority white and home to many police officers. Several activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, have called for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to step in because they believe a fair trial would be impossible on Staten Island.
A letter sent Wednesday to Holder was signed by Jeffries, Clarke and Reps. Gregory Meeks, Charles Rangel, Jose Serrano and Nydia Velazquez.
In response, a spokesman for Donovan said his office "is continuing with its investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Garner's death."
Holder's office has indicated it is monitoring the situation. Two NYPD officers involved in the Garner altercation have been reassigned pending the investigation.
Garner's death stirred a long-held distrust of the NYPD in certain minority communities and renewed a debate about a police tactic known as Broken Windows.
The Broken Windows theory, which has been long championed by Police Commissioner William Bratton, puts an emphasis on cracking down on low-level offenses that could lead to more violent crimes.
Garner was arrested on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Clarke, who, like Jeffries, represents a heavily black district, said the NYPD "must be transformed."
"It appears that the Broken Windows policy has effectively reinstated stop-and-frisk, resulting in racial profiling of black men and men of color," she said.
De Blasio's predecessor, independent Michael Bloomberg, credited stop-and-frisk, which allows police to stop anyone they deem suspicious, with helping to drive the city's crime rate to record lows. But its critics said it unfairly targets minorities.
De Blasio, a Democrat, campaigned last year on a pledge to dramatically curb the use of stop-and-frisk and was elected with strong support from blacks and Latinos. Comfortable around activists, he invited Sharpton to City Hall to discuss the Garner case and sat between the civil rights leader and the police commissioner as cameras rolled.
That image angered police unions that felt de Blasio had given Sharpton equal billing with the police commissioner and had reflexively sided with the activists and not the police officers.
Since then, de Blasio has gone out of his way to praise Bratton, refuting an online report that claimed the mayor would dismiss the commissioner if Sharpton asked.
Administration officials, fearful of the unrest that could ignite if Donovan decides not to prosecute the officers, have all but invited Holder to take control of the investigation, which de Blasio hinted at again Thursday.
"If the Justice Department decides to get involved, we respect that and we'll cooperate fully," the mayor said.
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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press