While police work is often complex and subject to interpretation, the videos of a July police confrontation on Staten Island that led to the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner — an unarmed black man —show a clear example of abuse of power, miserable judgment, and excessive use of force on the part of police. Yet even in a case so utterly beyond the pale, a grand jury chose to look the other way this week when it decided that there was insufficient evidence to go forward with charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, a white officer who had placed Garner in a deadly chokehold.
Once in the throes of a physical confrontation with suspects, police can legitimately claim in almost any case that they feared at some point for their safety or the safety of the public. Police managers, therefore, often examine the minutes preceding the confrontation to determine if an officer could have de-escalated the situation before the use of force became necessary. Well-trained, well-intentioned officers routinely find ways to resolve situations without resorting to force, especially when dealing with petty crimes. And petty is the only way to describe Garner’s alleged crime — selling loose cigarettes on the street. Garner practically begged the officers to leave him in peace.
What is so disturbing about this case is the blatant combination of needless escalation by police and excessive use of force by Pantaleo, who placed Garner in a chokehold even as the prone suspect rasps repeatedly that he can’t breathe. The Staten Island district attorney saw enough to impanel a grand jury to weigh evidence and hear testimony from officers and civilian witnesses. The grand jury simply let the officer off the hook.
The outcome is all the more shocking coming on the heels of a decision by a St. Louis County grand jury that declined to bring charges against another white police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo. It is no surprise that grand juries will give police officers the benefit of the doubt given the pressures of law enforcement and the officers’ duty to protect the public. But these cases point in a different and dangerous direction: police officers who make no effort to resolve situations peacefully, and grand juries who make no effort to hold those officers accountable.
Police managers know that a small group of officers are often responsible for a disproportionate number of complaints by citizens. Within the past two years, for example, three men have sued Pantaleo over allegedly unlawful racially motivated arrests. While federal officials in the Justice Department conduct a civil rights investigation into Garner’s death, local police officials should be scanning their files for the names of officers who are prone to the use of excessive force. Minimally, such officers should be riding desks — not patrolling streets where they spread harassment, bad will, and, in the most tragic cases, death.