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Mayor Bill de Blasio faces questions about Eric Garner's 2014 death in CNN town hall

Democratic presidential candidate and New York City Mayor

Democratic presidential candidate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks Aug. 10 during a forum on gun safety at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Stephen Maturen

Mayor Bill de Blasio at a CNN town hall on Sunday night faced questions about the aftermath of Eric Garner's death in 2014, a polarizing event that has defined his mayoralty as well as his presidential candidacy.

De Blasio seized the opportunity to chastise the administration of Republican President Donald Trump. He said that he as mayor did his part in restructuring the NYPD following Garner’s death.

“The United States Department of Justice failed here miserably,” de Blasio said of inaction against Daniel Pantaleo, the former police officer who was captured on video restraining Garner in a banned chokehold after the man resisted arrest for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island. A medical examiner testified the chokehold led to Garner's death later that day.

The CNN town hall allowed de Blasio an hour in the national spotlight as an attempt to break out of the bottom tier of the crowded field of Democratic contenders for the White House. The mayor, polling at less than 1 percent in a recent CNN survey, is not expected to qualify for the third official Democratic debate next month. His polling and fundraising numbers are too low.

De Blasio, who is term-limited, has campaigned on a vision to implement the progressive policies he has championed in New York City on a federal scale. But the challenges he faces in the city have followed him to the national stage.

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill last week fired Pantaleo at the recommendation of an administration judge. A supervisor who was on the scene for the attempted arrest settled her case last week and was docked 20 days of vacation pay.

De Blasio on Sunday night was interrupted by a protester who called for action against the other officers involved in Garner’s arrest, underscoring the deep and lingering emotions surrounding the case.

Garner’s death and Pantaleo’s firing look to be defining moments of de Blasio’s legacy as mayor.

De Blasio said the NYPD was trained in de-escalation tactics and combating implicit biases and were given body cameras. It should be a “federal imperative” to do the same, he said.

The mayor also was asked at the town hall about the spate of suicides by NYPD members. He called for improved mental health services.

“We’ve got to break that stigma once and for all,” de Blasio said of mental health. “It’s not a character flaw; it’s part of human life.”

De Blasio said mental health services should come as part of Medicare For All, a policy proposal that he supports.

Asked how he would pay for universal public health care, de Blasio said the policy could be financed with a reversal of the sweeping Republican tax law that he said benefits the wealthy and major corporations. 

The Democrat spoke in a fiery defense of immigrants who are in the country illegally, saying they are entitled to health care and the economy would "[grind] to a halt" if the millions were deported.

"Why don’t we stop the fiction and help our fellow human beings who are part of our American reality?" he said.

De Blasio also said he believes that some working-class Americans have misdirected anger about their economic struggles.

"The immigrants didn’t do that to you," he said. "Wall Street did that to you. The big corporations did that to you."

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