Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

The inexplicable decision in the Eric Garner case

I really don't know what to say after this one.

President Obama and others have been pressing for use of body cameras by police officers, but in the Eric Garner case in New York City, we have extensive video of what happened, taken by onlookers.

We also have the New York medical examiner concluding in August that Garner was killed by a police chokehold, ruling his death a homicide caused by compression of his windpipe and chest. (Garner's obesity and asthma were listed as contributing factors.)

We have the fact that chokeholds have been barred by the New York Police Department in all circumstances since 1993, a clear recognition that they amount to use of deadly force in situations in which deadly force is not required. Police officers everywhere are trained in a continuum of force justified in each situation.  Nowhere on that NYPD continuum is a chokehold ever allowed.

We have the fact that at worst, Garner was suspected of selling loose, single cigarettes without paying the required tax on them.

We also have the fact that the officer who placed Garner in that fatal chokehold, Daniel Pantaleo, had been sued twice in the past two years for conducting unlawful, racially motivated arrests. That's consistent with the alleged pattern of harassment that Garner complained about in the video shortly before his death: "Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today. I'm minding my business. Please just leave me alone."

As the local CBS affiliate reported the cases against Pantaleo:

"In the first lawsuit, settled by the city in January, two black men in their 40s accused Pantaleo and other officers of arresting them without cause and subjecting them to a "humiliating and unlawful strip search" on a Staten Island street that involved ordering them to "pull their pants and underwear down, squat and cough."

The men said they were held overnight on charges that were ultimately dismissed seven months later.

In a second lawsuit, a man accused Pantaleo and other officers of misrepresenting facts in a police report and other documents to substantiate charges that were eventually dismissed."

In that first case, the cavity search in question occurred at 10 a.m. on a public street. Pantaleo claimed to have seen cocaine and heroin in open view in the suspects' car, thus justifying the search. Neither drug was ever found. Rather than try to defend Pantaleo's actions before a jury, the city of New York paid each of the victims $15,000.

In the second case, filed in February and yet to be resolved, Pantaleo is accused of fabricating evidence. Notably, the charges against the man filing suit were dismissed five days after his arrest, again because of lack of evidence.

Yet despite all that -- video, medical examiner, violation of policy, record of excessive force, the fact that failure to comply is not legal justification for use of deadly force -- a Staten Island jury on Wednesday refused to even indict Pantaleo in the case.

All that's bad enough, and I'm sure that some will still argue that Garner somehow brought this upon himself, as if police officers have no responsibility to behave professionally, as if resisting arrest justifies use of deadly force. But personally, the most compelling and depressing part of the case comes after Garner has been placed in the chokehold, complains that he can't breath, collapses on the street, coughs up blood, lapses into unconsciousness, ceases breathing and is handcuffed.

What happens next? Nothing.  In the seven long minutes of the video above, no effort whatsoever is made to assist Garner or even check to see whether he is alive. His pockets are searched. His handcuffs are kept on. But no effort is made to perform CPR. At about four minutes into the video, two EMTs and two paramedics arrive; one nonchalantly checks Garner's pulse but takes no further action. Again, the complete and utter lack of concern is apparent. Again, no effort is made to revive him. His body is simply placed on a gurney and rolled away.

"Black lives matter"? Not based on the evidence in that video.


** The four emergency medical personnel were later suspended without pay.


Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.