For readers who haven’t yet heard, the case of Eric Garner is a troubling one. Basically, on July 17, 2014, on Staten Island, New York, this man was confronted on the street by NYC police officers. There was a prolonged verbal conversation before the takedown as Mr. Garner repeatedly asked why he’s being confronted and then asked to be left alone. One of the police officers, Daniel Pantaleo, then used the banned choke hold against the victim, who was then thrown to the ground by several additional officers. Audibly, Mr. Garner can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe.” Despite Mr. Garner’s nonresponsiveness and apparent lack of any breathing, neither the police officers at the scene (who are trained) nor the EMS workers performed CPR. Mr. Garner subsequently died of cardiac arrest.
What happened to Mr. Garner is indeed a tragedy, especially for the family that he left behind, but to focus on the choke hold in this matter is to focus solely on a single component working within the context of a dysfunctional system. To fix the problem, one would need to analyze and correct all the dysfunctional components.
First, rarely does one hear why Eric Garner was being arrested in the first place—his alleged possession and distribution of black market cigarettes. In fact, Mr. Garner had been arrested many times before for selling untaxed cigarettes. Cigarettes are legal, of course, but the underground (untaxed) cigarettes that one can sell individually are outlawed. Now let’s think about this: A man produces cigarettes of a certain quality that someone else is willing to buy. The customer agrees to the sale, and both parties achieve satisfaction. How does any municipality interfering with that transaction prove to be in the best interest of anyone, and what right does a police officer (whose salary is totally funded by the taxpayers) have to use a banned lethal maneuver against a man who has committed no violence on his own? In fact, bystanders even report that Mr. Garner had broken up a fight in order to maintain peace before the police incident.
Is lethal force ever justified against a nonviolent criminal in a victimless “crime”?
Second, police officers are trained in CPR, and it is clearly evident from the video that Mr. Garner was nonresponsive, which is never a good sign. Instead of doing what is medically prudent, the officers simply watched as Mr. Garner spiraled downward and closer toward death. In the case of asphyxiation, the immediate need is to secure an airway or, at the very least, provide supplemental oxygen. The officers, in fact, decided to search an unconscious and soon-to-be-dead man’s pockets.
Third, when EMS did arrive, they exhibited the same lack of medical knowledge and attention to the comatose patient the police did. There was no sense of urgency that someone was critically ill. Dr. Alexander Kuehl, who led EMS in NYC in the 1980s, is quoted in a New York Times article as saying, “It was like [the female EMS worker] either didn’t want to be there, which is hard to understand, or police basically told her to just let him alone … she certainly didn’t do her job … she doesn’t do her assessment at all. There was something very peculiar about her approach.”
The fourth issue involves events beyond the Garner incident. The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) is an independent agency that investigates police misconduct. Thousands of complaints of police use of choke holds against citizens have been alleged, but an oversight board validated only nine cases from 2009 to 2013. Of those nine cases, the CCRB recommended the most stringent punishment in all of them—an administrative trial, which can lead to officer termination. However, in eight of those cases, the officers involved were either not disciplined or received the most lenient punishment—a simple review of proper police procedure. The police commissioner has the ultimate say over what happens in all these cases.
Essentially, the police department has established a precedent that tacitly condones the use of barred tactics because it appears that it takes no action to discipline those who deviate from the rules. This represents a deliberate and conscious effort to privately encourage deviant behavior while shunning it in the public sphere.
In the end, lethal, aggressive force was used against a citizen who would rather go about his business. And, Mr. Garner can potentially represent any citizen—regardless of race, sex, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or sexual orientation—in the city of New York who can fall victim to the reckless abuse of police power. Even if Mr. Garner was “breaking the law,” were a few untaxed cigarettes worth his life?
You can find an online petition (directed to NYC Mayor DeBlasio and Police Commissioner Bratton) asking for the dismissal of the officer who executed the choke hold here: http://action.groundswell-mvmt.org/petitions/justice-for-eric-garner.
Finally, to highlight the pervasiveness of excessive police force, you can find another cellphone video here of the NYPD brutally arresting another individual, Jahmiel Cuffee, for the non-violent crime of marijuana possession.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal