It seems quaint and almost ridiculous in the wake of recent news to refer to police as peacekeepers, but that’s what they’re supposed to be about.
You would never know that, though, watching the video of a police officer in New York City’s Staten Island taking down Eric Garner with a chokehold on July 17.
The entire confrontation was excessive and unnecessary. Garner, 43, was arguing with cops, who accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes. He was frustrated, but not belligerent. He didn’t lay a hand on anyone or threaten anyone.
Yet officer Daniel Pantaleo used a banned tactic, a chokehold, to wrestle Garner to the ground. Other cops helped him handcuff Garner, who was 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 350 pounds. He wasn’t on the sidewalk for more than a few seconds when he started saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
Then he went still. Although several cops were at Garner’s side, no one tried to revive him or even remove the handcuffs.
We all get that police must enforce laws, and selling untaxed cigarettes is against the law. And businesses around Tompkinsville Park, where Garner died, had complained about the activity.
Doesn’t matter. Illegal sale of “loosies” does not warrant aggressive, humiliating police tactics. Police officers are supposed to be trained in how to talk people into complying.
Or why not just tell Garner to go home? Sure, he’d be back, but that would likely be the case if police arrested him. According to the New York Times, they had done so many times already. Garner always returned to the park, chatting and hawking cigarettes. How is that worse than a man dead on the sidewalk from a pointless act of police brutality?
In a heartbreaking twist, the cops who were supposed to be peacekeepers ended up killing a man who actually assumed that role.
“To park regulars and local shop owners, it was devastatingly ironic that the police considered Mr. Garner, 43, a vestige of the disorder that still cropped up in the area,” The Times reported. “To them, he had been a bright spot, a peacemaker who with his size alone could — and often did — quell disputes.”
Unlike the case in Ferguson, Mo., involving police officer Darren Wilson and unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, there are no conflicting accounts or questions about what happened on Staten Island. It was all caught on cellphone video.
A medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, saying he was killed by “the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” The tactic Pantaleo used was against department policy. No police officer or civilian was in imminent danger from Garner — the reason usually cited to justify deadly force by police.
And yet a grand jury found no cause to indict Pantaleo. Unbelievable.
Remember, grand jurors aren’t asked to determine guilt or innocence. All this group was asked to decide is whether Pantaleo should face charges in court.
And they said no. The proceedings are secret, so we may never know exactly why. But one has to wonder how intent the prosecutor was on securing an indictment. As we saw in Ferguson, the bonds between prosecutors and police are strong.
It’s still possible something may come from a U.S. Justice Department investigation into Garner’s death. But this case, coming on the heels of the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision to not indict Wilson, erodes trust in the legal process.
As President Obama said Wednesday, this isn’t just a black problem (although black Americans feel it most acutely). Our rule of law is what distinguishes the United States from repressive and corrupt regimes around the world. If it doesn’t work for Eric Garner, or Michael Brown, or any victim of overaggressive policing, it’s not working. Period.
Reach Barbara Shelly at 816-234-4594 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bshelly.