Culture, Science & Faith

NYPD: A Ferguson Replay?

Eric Garner is dead after an altercation with police, but there was no indictment.

Dec. 4, 2014
Garner resisting arrest

While a lot of media attention has been focused on Ferguson, Missouri, another grand jury decision in New York City will add fuel to the race bait fires.

On July 17, 2014, several white New York City police officers, under the supervision of black NYPD Police Sergeant named Kizzy Adoni, were involved in a takedown of a belligerent black man, Eric Garner, after he resisted arrest. One of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, used a modified chokehold as part of the effort to get the 350lb Garner to the ground. That chokehold, if it was intentional, may fall within the definition an action that does not comply with NYPD policy because it is associated with prior injuries and deaths – though the hold is not illegal. Garner died shortly after the takedown, and his death raises reasonable questions.

Why did the officers target Garner? It was not because of race or selling cigarettes. It was because a group of black convenience store and shop owners in this predominantly black community, went to police headquarters and asked assistance with removing Garner from the area, because he habitually harassed there customers and others on the street. In response, NYPD’s black police chief authorized patrols in the area to assist the merchants by removing Garner.

On the day of the altercation, Garner, a convicted felon with 31 prior arrests on his record, was approached by police for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes on the street – a misdemeanor but one which provided them the means to remove him from the area. Garner had previously been arrested for the same infraction and was out on bail at the time police confronted him. After the altercation was underway, an individual who used his phone to video the incident, makes reference to Garner “breaking up a fight,” but we don’t know the context for what role Garner may have had in that fight. What we do know from the video is that officers attempted to handcuff Garner, who towered over them. He did not comply and it took four officers to subdue him, including Pantaleo, who used a chokehold. Note, this took place under the supervision of the black NYPD Sergeant, who did not intervene.

Unknown to the officers, Garner is an asthmatic, can be heard in the video pleading, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” He soon went limp and died while lying cuffed on the sidewalk.

The New York City medical examiner’s office assessed that Garner’s death was a homicide caused by “compression of his neck, compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” The designation of “homicide” means that he didn’t die of natural causes, but it is not an accusation of murder. Notably, the report also found that Garner’s tracheal airway had not been damaged in the takedown, and that obesity, heart disease and asthma also contributed to his death.

In other words, despite the media labels that this takedown was a “chokehold death,” there were other complicating factors.

On Wednesday, after hearing months of evidence and testimony, a majority of the 23-person grand jury declined to indict Officer Pantaleo for any crime.

This incident stands apart from the death of Michael Brown in some important ways.

First, Garner’s death was caught on video, meaning that part of the evidence is plain to see. There was not unreliable “eyewitness” testimony as was discredited in Ferguson.

Second, Garner was agitated and resisted arrest, but he did not attack police or attempt to take an officer’s firearm as Brown did. (It may come as a shock to some Democrats and NFL players, but Brown did not have his hands up.)

Third, in New York, manslaughter in the second degree is defined as when an individual “recklessly causes the death of another person.” It is not clear why, then, Officer Pantaleo was not indicted by the grand jury for second-degree manslaughter. Did the grand jury get it wrong, or did the prosecutor even press for that charge, or is there substantial other evidence that influenced the jury’s decision? Notably, last month a grand jury did issue an indictment on a weapons charge – against the man who used his phone to video Garner’s confrontation and takedown.

Fourth, a sidebar: New York’s high and punitive cigarette tax has created a profitable black market for the sale of so-called “loosies” (untaxed cigarettes), which Garner was accused of doing. While Barack Obama, Eric Holder and Sharpton will attempt to frame this case on race, perhaps a little attention should be allocated for asinine taxes and laws. After all, this is the same city whose last Democrat mayor attempted to outlaw large sodas. As National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke noted, “[I]magine what Sam … Adams would have said at the news that a man had been killed over cigarette taxes.” Indeed, it seems we recall a famous protest over taxes on another kind of leaf.

But notably, the New York and Ferguson cases share one significant similarity. As Mark Alexander wrote this week in “Black Privilege,” Brown, like Garner, believed he was entitled to ignore a lawful police order. Brown and Garner would both be alive today had they obeyed those lawful orders. Brown and Garner made fatal choices.

Unlike Ferguson, however, there will likely not be violent and destructive riots as New Yorkers know the NYPD is capable of extinguishing those riots quickly.

After being cleared by the grand jury, Officer Pantaleo released a statement, saying, “I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves. It is never my intention to harm anyone, and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”

We have no doubt Pantaleo did not intend to kill Garner. We have no doubt that the confrontation with Garner was not about race. That having been said, there are indisputable cases where police abuse their authority. Such cases are usually the result of one or more officers whose judgment has been calloused by day-in and day-out confrontations, primarily in impoverished urban centers.

But there are three things to keep in mind – especially for those who have never walked a day in the shoes of men and women in blue.

First, refrain from drawing conclusions based solely on the video. Even the otherwise erudite Charles Krauthammer failed to follow this most basic rule: “From looking at the video, the grand jury’s decision here is totally incomprehensible. … I think anyone who looks at this video would think that this is the wrong judgment.” But the grand jury didn’t weigh only the video.

Second, the real “racial disparity” when it comes to crime is the grossly disproportionate number of violent crimes committed by black people, almost always against other black people. Last year alone, blacks murdered more than 6,000 people, about 400 of whom were white.

And last, altercations with police resulted in 449 assailant deaths last year – 123 black, 326 white. Meanwhile, over the last decade there were an average of 58,261 assaults against law enforcement personnel each year, resulting in 15,658 injuries and more than 150 deaths per year.

Put it this way: The case isn’t exactly black and white.

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