A couple of weeks ago, it was revealed that a 400 pound Staten Island dad died when cops put him in a choke hold and piled onto him, taking him to the ground. Eric Garner, 43, screamed repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe as the cops choked him, put the cuffs on him, and forced his head and face into the sidewalk. All of this was caught on tape by bystanders with cell phones. The cops are seen chatting and joking casually as Garner dies right in front of them. The paramedics arrive, but not in time. It is later revealed that Garner, in addition to being obese, also suffered from asthma and heart disease. His crime? Selling single cigarettes, called “loosies,” illegally on the street corner. The coroner’s report, recently released, showed that the choke hold led directly to Garner’s death. Choke holds were outlawed on the force here in New York twenty years ago.
Since this happened, the black community (Garner was black) has come out in arms, and understandably so. Al Sharpton and his political action committee have latched onto this and bluffed and bellowed at the NYPD and the Commissioner and the Mayor, as they’re inclined to do. So far, Bill Bratton, the Commissioner, has said the entire police force will be retrained. The officer who used the choke hold has been placed on modified duty, which basically means they’ve stuck him behind a desk and taken away his badge and gun. This is far from the first time the NYPD has taken action that has led to the death of a suspect, due to mishandling of a situation, or an overabundance of caution, or whatever other euphemism you care to use. Usually, the cops gloss these incidents over, no matter how egregious the misconduct. But this is about as bad as I’ve seen, sort of in a class by itself. The cops, and Bratton in particular, are being sure to emphasize that Garner was doing something illegal, and he was resisting arrest. Both of those are undeniable facts. But it wasn’t as though he was in the midst of fleeing from a bank robbery, gun in hand. The cops were in very little actual danger when they decided to wrestle the man to the ground. You can see on the video there are nearly a dozen of them on the scene. Garner may have gotten a little belligerent, but there can be no denying that excessive force was used. Sharpton has said this is a racial issue, and it’s hard to argue with that. Bratton’s “broken windows” theory of policing…the idea that small crimes, like Garner’s, should be aggressively targeted, to prevent bigger crimes…leads to persecution of minority communities, particularly the black community, just like the stop-and-frisk policy did. But I think that there’s a key aspect of this that needs to be addressed, regardless of whether Garner’s race played a part in this particular officer’s thinking. One man killed another man, by choking him, and the whole thing was caught on tape, in graphic, horrifying detail. So far, that man, the undisputed murderer, has not been arrested. He hasn’t been charged with anything. He hasn’t even been fired from his job…he’s sitting at a desk at this very moment, without his badge and gun. That’s it. That’s all the disciplinary action that’s been taken. And much as I’d like to give Commissioner Bratton and Mayor DeBlasio the benefit of the doubt, I just don’t believe that anything much more serious is going to happen to this guy, regardless of how much Sharpton and Garner’s family blusters. Even if they eventually decide that this man should be fired, will he be prosecuted? Unlikely.
I’ve had several run-ins with the cops in my life. Most of the times, I was doing something I shouldn’t have been, though sometimes I was just minding my own business. In almost every instance, my view of the cops lowered because of the experience, and it was never exactly high to begin with. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the old axiom goes. The power of the police is pretty much absolute. When they arrive at a crime scene, or what they suspect is a crime scene, ordinary citizens have to do whatever they want. That’s a disproportionate amount of power given to people, many of whom, I suspect, only got into the profession because of ego, and because they like being bullies, legally able to push people around. I’m not saying there aren’t good cops out there. I’m just saying there’s precious few of them. Garner was doing something illegal, and that wasn’t smart on his part. Did that mean he deserved to die, in as awful and humiliating of a way as he did? It sure as shit doesn’t. Race probably did play a factor in his being singled out, regardless of Bratton or DeBlasio denying it. And I don’t believe that much is going to change as a result of this. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. But if all that happens is the force is “retrained,” and nothing more than a slap on the wrist is what awaits the uniformed murdered caught on tape who so callously stood by while Eric Garner took his last laboring breaths on the sidewalk, then it is a disgrace. And it is just business as usual. And it confirms, once again, everything I’ve always thought about “New York’s finest.”