A New York grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner was outrageously wrong, but it is useful.
It establishes that America has a policing problem and a justice problem.
Unlike the shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Garner’s death at the hands of police in Staten Island is captured on a video. It shows officer Daniel Pantaleo using a chokehold on Garner, who posed no menace and whose alleged transgression was selling loose cigarettes.
The chokehold was banned by the New York Police Department. A coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. And still a grand jury, guided by the Staten Island district attorney, said Pantaleo should face no charges.
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This is why people are marching in the streets of New York and Ferguson and other places. Americans of color have always believed their character and often their very lives are too easily denigrated by law enforcement. The Garner grand jury decision follows a non-indictment in the Ferguson case and a recent police shooting of 12-year-old Tamar Rice in Cleveland, who was killed by law officers while holding a pellet gun.
It feels like a moment of reckoning.
“We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of accountability that exists between our communities and law enforcement,” President Barack Obama said this week.
The U.S. Justice Department has correctly launched civil rights investigations into the deaths of Brown and Garner. And Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday announced the department would oversee sweeping changes in the Cleveland Police Department after a scathing report documented a pattern of unnecessary force.
Intervention from the top is needed in some cases. But trust is built at the local level.
Every police department should continually examine its procedures and train officers to de-escalate conflict, not elevate it. Leaders must demand that officers approach neighborhoods and citizens with respect.
Now is the time for meaningful conversation and an acknowledgment of the work that needs to be done. If not now, when?