The Eric Garner Case: Police Aggression Against Civilians

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Law enforcement is a tricky business, one that we’ve seen at issue time and time again. Police officers’ work lingers on a line between civilian acknowledgement of the law and respecting an individual’s personal rights, making it a subject of much debate.

New York civilian Eric Garner, 43, died last week during an incident in which he appeared to be in a chokehold at the hands of an officer with the New York City Police Department (NYPD). The police reported that Garner resisted arrest and denied charges when they approached him on the suspicion that he was selling illegal cigarettes. In one of the two videos released to the public, Garner explains to two officers that he hasn’t done anything wrong, and is tired of the NYPD “mess[ing]” with him. Soon after, one of the cops attempts to cuff him and when that doesn’t work, an officer throws his arm around Garner’s neck. Garner can be heard repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe!”

In the following seven minutes after he is taken down, none of the cops appears to make an effort to help the suffering man, other than an instruction to “breathe in, breathe out.”

At a news conference shortly after the incident, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said, “As defined in the department’s patrol guide, this would appear to have been a chokehold.” What exactly is a chokehold? Police rules define it as “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” The video certainly makes it look as though Garner was placed is a chokehold, which is alarming for many reasons, including that the NYPD banned the use of such force over two decades ago. Whether the chokehold was the cause of death is still up for speculation, as Garner had a variety of health problems, like diabetes, sleep apnea, and severe asthma.

Make no mistake about it, Garner had been in trouble with the law before. The 6-foot-3, 350-pound man was arrested in March and again in May of 2014 for illegally selling cigarettes on the sidewalk. Nevertheless, illegally selling cigarettes is a low-level crime, Garner was not armed, and though he seemed resistant to arrest, he was not fleeing, so it’s hard to imagine why an officer felt a chokehold was necessary.

Garner’s case has been the subject of much discussion, centering on the subject of excessive forced used by the NYPD, specifically, and police officers in general. Amid the outrage over Garner’s death, the NYPD announced that the cop who put the father of six in a chokehold has been stripped of his gun and badge. Another officer has been placed on desk duty. And the four emergency medical workers who responded to the scene, and reportedly did not administer CPR or oxygen, have been suspended without pay. For most, though, this is of little comfort, as New Yorkers have seen this before.

In 1983, officers approached graffiti artist Michael Stewart when he was seen spray-painting graffiti on a NYC subway station wall. The confrontation became violent and, following a struggle with officers, Stewart lost consciousness and died. Several theories were suggested on what caused his death, including a heart attack, strangulation, and “physical injury to the spinal cord in the upper neck”. On the criminal charges, all six officers involved in the physical altercation with Stewart were acquitted. Subsequently, Stewart’s family brought a civil suit that settled for $1.7 million.

Similarly, in 1994, Anthony Baez was killed following a scuffle with a police officer in the Bronx. The whole thing started when Baez and his brothers accidentally hit a police car with their football. An officer ordered them to go home, but the boys decided to continue playing. The officer then attempted to arrest Baez, who resisted, so he was forcefully brought to the ground. Baez was declared dead after being taken to the hospital because of asphyxiation “due to compression of his neck and chest” as well as acute asthma. Criminal charges were brought against the officer, but he was acquitted. Federal prosecutors then stepped in and accused the officer of violating Baez’s civil rights. This stuck and the officer was sentenced to seven and a half years in federal prison. And Baez’s wife filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful death suit against the NYPD, which was settled for $3 million in 1998.

Police brutality has long been an issue in the United States, and it is one that shows no sign of going away soon. Surveys conducted by the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project indicate that there were 5,986 reports of police misconduct reported from April 2009 to June 2010. During that time period, 382 deaths were linked to police misconduct. In 2009, only 33% of police charged with misconduct were convicted, and only 64% of those convicted received a prison sentence.

There’s no denying that law enforcement and the use of force are difficult topics to judge, since many factors go into how an officer responds. But it is quite clear that these are issues in need of more discussion among police departments. Most the time, a loss of life at the hands of an officer causes outrage. A criminal case and a civil case typically follow, which may offer solace and a type of closure for family and friends. But these legal avenues don’t help us answer two increasingly important questions: Just how far should officers be able to go in making an arrest? And how much force should be permitted?

What do you think of this case and how do you think police officers should approach such situations?

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