Eric Garner’s Death Prompts Cop-Public Clash On Policing Tactics
Members of the American public have recently flooded the comments sections of news articles chronicling the tragic death of 43-year-old Eric Garner, who stopped breathing during his violent arrest in Staten Island, New York, last week for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.
Though the bulk of the comments express outrage for the level of maltreatment Garner apparently received at the hands of officers from the New York Police Department, there has also been an influx of comments showing support for the officers’ actions — mostly from law enforcement officials across the country — since NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has publicly stated that the officers’ actions were inappropriate.
Garner, who weighed around 350 pounds, reportedly resisted arrest when officers approached him around 5 p.m. on July 17 for selling the cigarettes in front of a beauty supply store. This is what reportedly led one plainclothes NYPD officer to place 6-foot-3 Garner in a chokehold.
Thanks to Ramsey Orta, a 22-year-old man who had been talking to Garner about their plans for the weekend prior to police arriving at the scene, the incident was caught on film.
Evidence of wrongdoing
According to witnesses, Garner’s interaction with the police was uncalled for from the get-go, as Garner had just broken up a fight between two other men and was not selling untaxed cigarettes or any other drug.
For the record, Garner had been busted selling cigarettes and other drugs more than 30 times since 1998, but witnesses say Garner was doing nothing wrong the day he was killed. Despite repeated protests from witnesses and Garner himself, the NYPD officers didn’t appear interested in speaking to anyone but Garner — not even the men who had been involved in the altercation that Garner had broken up.
“Before they even grabbed [Garner], he told them he wasn’t feeling good and that’s why I pulled the camera out and started recording,” Orta said, adding that Garner suffered from asthma. “They could’ve just hopped out on the guys who were fighting, but they didn’t bother to ask. They just jumped straight on him.”
“I didn’t do shit!” Garner is heard saying in the video.
“I was just minding my own business,” he tells the NYPD officers. “Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!”
But the officers didn’t stop.
“Don’t touch me please!” Garner says, prompting a plainclothes officer, Daniel Pantaleo, to unlawfully place the 350-pound man in what appears to be a chokehold. With the help of another NYPD officer and four EMS workers, Pantaleo, who has been sued twice for civil rights violations, forces Garner down onto the street, where it appears Garner’s head is repeatedly slammed on the pavement.
With six officers on top of him — one of whom appears to be squeezing his neck — Garner screams, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” repeatedly for less than a minute before he falls silent and unconscious.
But it’s not just Orta and his video footage that prove the NYPD officers were out of line this time. Multiple witnesses have stepped forward to say that Garner was not doing anything wrong, including selling cigarettes, which is why they found it puzzling that he caught the officers’ attention.
“They ran up on him and got rough right away. He wasn’t fighting back,” Gordon Benson said.
“When he was on the ground, they kept holding him by the neck,” Benson said. “He just gasped and then stopped moving. They threw him on a gurney and took him away.”
According to a report in the New York Daily News, Garner’s wife, Esaw, was contacted by “a Detective Howard” from the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Division, who after sharing his condolences with Garner’s grieving widow, explained to her that he was involved in the case “because there is wrongdoing.”
“Cops”: A codeword for bullies?
Despite Police Commissioner Bratton’s admission that the officer had placed Garner in a chokehold, the official NYPD statement is that while Garner “was being placed in custody, [he] went into cardiac arrest and died” later at Richmond University Medical Center.
Pantaleo had his gun and badge taken away from him and he’s been placed on modified assignment until an investigation into the incident is completed, and the other officers involved in Garner’s death have been placed on either administrative leave or modified duty.
Garner, who suffered from chronic asthma, diabetes and sleep apnea, reportedly struggled to breathe while walking down the street and talking, which is why the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the labor organization representing police officers, has asked that the officers be given “the benefit of the doubt” in this case.
Several officers agree that Garner was in such poor physical shape that the officers shouldn’t be held responsible for his death, and have expressed their frustrations about the incident on law enforcement websites that require proof of employment as an officer in order to comment.
Many of the comments are concerning to members of the American public, who say law enforcement’s response to Garner’s death is proof that police officers in the United States are too power-hungry and aggressive.
For example, a man who identifies himself as “SAPDMAS” wrote on PoliceOne, that the officers did nothing wrong, adding that “if Mr. walking heart attack had simply put his hamburger shovels behind his back, he wouldn’t have had a [heart attack] for over exerting himself.”
“I think [the officers] were very generous, maybe too generous in the amount of time they allowed this guy to vent,” added “esu5.”
“I wonder if that was because of his size? Or that they were awaiting backup, again due to his size,” “esu5” continued. “I also didn’t see any kicks, baton strikes, punches, nothing that could be construed as excessive.”
Call for reform
It’s hard to argue against damning video footage and testimony from several witnesses about what happened to Garner. This may explain why Bratton has not only acknowledged that the Pantaleo had Garner in a chokehold, but has also said the police department will be re-training its officers on the proper use of force when dealing with suspects.
“The department needs to do a lot more in terms of training,” Bratton said at a news conference earlier this week. As part of the training, the NYPD will be sending officers to Los Angeles starting next week, where Bratton served as commissioner for seven years.
Since Bratton is credited with reforming the Los Angeles Police Department after several officers were hit with accusations of excessive force, he’s now hoping to reform the NYPD and significantly reduce the use of chokeholds among NYPD officers.
But Bratton’s attempts to transform the NYPD are already being met with resistance, as several police officers on these pro-law enforcement websites don’t agree with Bratton’s interpretation of the Garner incident. They have also expressed concerns that Bratton is hurting the officers’ reputations and hampering their ability to do their jobs by siding with the “savages.”
As “Career Path” wrote: “Fuckin Bratton threw the cops under the bus by declaring it as a choke hold. The cop grabbed him from behind yes but did not hold this guy in a position where the breathing of this fat bast*rd was blocked. The medical examiners report will be in the cops favor. Tell Deblowzio to get his azz (sic) to Italy.”
“NYPD finest” added, “Hopefully I am totally wrong but they are going to try to crucify these cops for doing their job. If the fat fuk (sic) just put his hands behind his back none of this would have escalated into what it did. I think the cops are going to have a long uphill battle but thankfully this happened in Staten island and not the Bronx.”
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association doesn’t think the training will be all that useful either, saying, “[w]hat we really need training for is what we aren’t allowed to do and what will get us in trouble. … We need training in how to deal with someone who won’t comply.”
Use of chokeholds on the rise
Despite a complete ban on chokeholds under NYPD policies, there have been more than 1,000 complaints sent to the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board in the last five years.
Even more concerning for many police reform advocates is that three days before Garner was killed, 23-year-old Ronald Johns was put into a chokehold at a subway station in East Harlem while officers were trying to arrest him for allegedly attempting to enter the subway without paying a fare.
East Harlem community activist Rev. Kelmy Rodriguez said the video was sent to him anonymously. He decided to share it with the public because he was “appalled when I saw this video, especially after the Eric Garner situation,” Rodriguez said.
“Something like this adds more gas to the fire,” Rodriguez said, pointing out that witnesses can be heard in the video saying, “That’s fucked up,” as Johns is beaten by the cops.
While the video Rodriguez shared begins with Johns on the ground, being punched by two officers, the problem for Johns allegedly started when he refused to show the officers his ID. The two officers tried to handcuff him, but Johns resisted.
Officers added criminal trespassing and resisting arrest charges to the list of reasons why the officers wanted to cuff him. The officers state in their report that they pepper-sprayed the man in order to subdue him so he could be taken into custody, but that was not caught on film.
As seen in the video, one of the officers holds Johns in a chokehold while the other tries to handcuff him. Because one of Johns’ arms is gripped by the officer who has him in a chokehold, he isn’t able to comply with the officer’s request to put his hands behind his back, which is when one of the officers punches Johns in the face.
Johns then moves his hands to protect his face and is struck once again by the officer. It’s at this point that witnesses begin to encourage Johns to stop resisting arrest, hoping that would lead the officers to stop striking him.
Unlike Garner, Johns survived the chokehold he was placed in, and the officers involved in his arrest have reportedly been placed on modified assignment.
Putting an end to racist policing
As the NYPD and residents of New York attempt to move forward after Garner’s death, some question whether the relationship between the city’s minority residents and the officers can be salvaged, as City Councilwoman Inez Barron said at a rally, situations like this “[don’t] happen to white folks. It happens to black folks.”
Police Commissioner Bratton has tried to assure the public that Garner’s race had nothing to do with his interaction with the police, but given that reports in recent years have shown that black and Latino men are targeted, or racially profiled, more than any other demographic in the U.S., there doesn’t appear to be much evidence to support Bratton’s statement.
City Councilman Jumaane Williams said, “This is a defining moment for [Bratton’s] administration.”
“There is no human being who can look at that video and say nothing wrong occurred.”
In order to prevent incidents like Garner’s death from occurring in the future, City Council members such as Barron and community activists from minority neighborhoods have called for an end to Bratton’s policing tactic, known as “Broken Windows.”
Under this tactic, police officers are encouraged to target small crimes such as drinking in public or graffiti — the idea being that targeting and punishing small crimes will lead to a reduction in larger crimes like assault or murder.
But as City Councilman Andy King noted, this tactic isn’t proving necessary, as it often “leads to confrontations like [Garner’s].”
The NYPD isn’t the only department grappling with failing public trust, though. Police officers throughout the country appear to be engaged in racist and overly aggressive policing policies, which explains why a nationwide poll in April found that 50 percent of all Americans believe police officers are not held accountable for misconduct.
Since police brutality and corruption within law enforcement agencies are growing points of concern for the American public, it’s not surprising that the Reason-Rupe poll also found that 88 percent of Americans believe that the public should be allowed to videotape uniformed officers who are arresting, restraining or engaging in an altercation with people in public.
Despite all of the issues the public sees with the law enforcement sector, 78 percent of those polled still have a favorable view of police. They hope that the officers who are working to better their communities are able to weed out those aggressive, trigger-friendly cops who are more concerned about making a name for themselves than serving their country and communities.
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