July 18, 2014

The Killing of Eric Garner

Yesterday afternoon, a group of NYPD police officers surrounded Eric Garner on Staten Island's Bay Street. Apparently, the officers believed Garner had been selling untaxed cigarettes and they planned to arrest him. Garner, an asthmatic  400 pound 43 year-old man, denied the allegations and complained that the officers were repeatedly arresting him without cause. Much of the event was captured on video.

The officers moved in and one grabbed Garner from behind in a deep choke hold. They tumbled to the ground with several other officers jumping in to cuff him. Garner, who, while not initially compliant, was not fighting the officers, called out several times that he could not breathe. The officer did not relent, sinking the hold in deeper, while an officer pushed Garner's head into the sidewalk.

Slowly Garner stopped moving. He became unresponsive. Then he died. The NYPD later issued a statement that he died at a local area hospital of a heart attack. This is certainly possible. He was a large, overweight man who was suddenly assaulted by several men who choked him for an extended period of time. That his body would fail him in response is not surprising. Whatever the ultimate cause of death, wherever the place of death, a man died needlessly and stupidly. Garner left behind a wife, six children, and two grandchildren.

This incident is deeply troubling. As an initial matter, it is far from clear that Garner had been engaged in any criminal conduct. At worst he had sold untaxed cigarettes. The use of force that followed seems to my eyes to be excessive, poorly thought out, and unnecessary.

More distressing is the use of the choke hold. It is a potentially deadly hold. Much like blows to the head with the foreign objects are eschewed by law enforcement, so too is the rear naked choke, which the New York Daily News referred to as "banned" by the NYPD. Yet, not only did one officer apply the hold, he refused to let go, even when Garner cried out over and over that he could not breathe, and even after four fellow officers jumped in to help. This is indefensible. Absolutely nothing that was happening at the scene justifies that conduct.

Upon realizing that Garner was unconscious, the officers did little more than mill about and push people away from the scene. There is no visible effort by any of the officers to use CPR or actually help Garner.

The reaction throughout much of New York City has been swift and angry, and the video confirms what many New Yorkers already believed to be true: that cops are quick to employ violence against people of color. According to at least one article, two of the officers in the video have been pulled from street duty, and the Staten Island District Attorney has promised an investigation. Skepticism abounds.

Given the history of forgiveness for officers who kill unarmed black men in this City (see, for example, Patrick Dorismond, Amadou Diallo, and Sean Bell), the notion that these officers will escape with little more than a slap on the wrist by the NYPD is well founded.

Unlike these killings, the assault on Eric Garner was captured on video, which means there is a corrective to the anticipated NYPD narrative. At least there is enough objective evidence that the NYPD can't run with the story it likely would have offered (Garner was physically aggressive, initiated the confrontation, and forced the police to reluctantly use force).

Yet, the killing of Eric Garner needs to be kept in perspective. Stupid, tragic, and entirely unnecessary, it is a clarion call for the NYPD to revisit its policies and training on the use of force. But, as a matter of comparison, it does not compare with, say, the shooting of Daniel Saenz by El Paso P.O. Jose Flores last year. There, Flores and another officer were struggling with the already handcuffed Saenz, who was on the ground. Flores then stood up, pulled out his gun, and fired point blank into Saenz, who dies on the scene. (Article and video here). Nor does it compare with the NYPD's more infamous shootings of recent years. It is a gratuitous use of force that calls out for crminal charges. But not murder, and probably not manslaughter, although it's too early to tell yet precisely what killed Eric Garner.

This marks Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton's first real test. There is little doubt that under the prior administrations, City Hall would defend the officers, vilify Garner, and blame his death entirely on his own obesity, poor health, and initial refusal to be handcuffed.

De Blasio ran as the anti-Bloomberg, the anti-Giuliani, and this is his moment to make his mark. Yet, the officers' responsibility for Garner's death is sufficiently gray (and the relationship between the Mayor's office and the rank and file already strained) that we can expect a vociferous defense of the officers by the PBA, the New York Post, and other usual suspects.

The next few days will give us a clue how the administration intends to proceed. Whatever the route, this matter is far from over. More here as more news emerges.

1 comment:

  1. Bernie Kerik's insistence he is still connected with the NYPD, is, for lack of any betters words, convoluted thinking. His ridiculous comments that DeBlasio has embarrassed the entire moral of the police because he invited Al Sharpton and Bratton to the same conference is what is wrong with the police. They need to lose that snob attitude and accept some mud when deaths occur because they choked someone to death. Clearly, when a very large man says he can't breath and is on the ground, you do not choke and wave to the camera. I find Kerik's phony anger kind of nutty and supports why Judge Robinson thought he may need counseling. MR KERIK NEEDS A LAWRENCE O'DONNELL TO INTERVIEW BERNIE AND ASK WHAT HE ASKED ANTHONY WIENER, NAMELY, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU..? Bernie, you do not win on these issues and no one really cares what you think - they are making you look like a fool and setting you up - you look like a clown bobbing for a banana - keep it up - I guess your prior outlandish or provocative comments before another past trial did not fair too well for you. You seem to have time for all these silly venues with punks like "Bo" Deitel, Geraldo, and others.....you have a prisoner chasing gal after you releases the most vulgar letters - ewww, I won't even go there but it raises questions over your emotional stability and whether you have the guts to go threw a tough litigation - that remains to be seen

    Go get yourself a hobby, go fishing or join a church and start an activist blog and do charity and you will feel better about yourself