It’s beyond us how anyone could watch the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island last July and not see a case of excessive police force.
The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9 made for a murky case, at best, of police misconduct. The physical evidence – blood spatter, bullet casings, Brown’s DNA on the officer’s gun – didn’t support the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative still being cited by protesters. The white officer’s account aligned with the physical evidence and the testimony of multiple black witnesses.
Garner’s death is another story. The video is horrifying. It shows a large man standing on a sidewalk, vocally complaining about being accosted by police. He’s not running away. He’s not threatening. His offense is as petty as they come: selling single, untaxed cigarettes.
He is not, however, submitting to handcuffs. A small army of officers surrounds him. One of them, Daniel Pantaleo, throws Garner into a chokehold, and he is wrestled to the pavement and roughly restrained as he repeatedly yells, “I can’t breathe.” He apparently dies right in front of the camera as some officers shoo off onlookers and others stand over Garner, staring idly at him as he lies on the concrete.
This one is the unambiguous, inexcusable outrage. When a grand jury on Wednesday failed to indict Pantaleo, the public anger and peaceful protests were wholly justified. A relative handful of rowdies have attacked police and tried to block highways in some cities; these are the same sort who’ve hidden among crowds at other big demonstrations on other issues.
Everything about Garner’s death reeks of incompetence, overkill and very likely racism.
The grand jury’s decision is only one mystery. There are others. Why, for example, did the sale of illicit cigarettes merit the nuclear response? And what did Garner do to deserve the sudden violent takedown? He was big, loud and noncompliant – but unarmed and unthreatening. How did he deserve Pantaleo’s lightning resort to a chokehold forbidden by the New York Police Department?
Good police departments emphasize de-escalating confrontations before violence happens. There’s precious little de-escalation on that video.
The grand jury’s decision is another mystery. Indictment does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt; it must meet the much lower standard of probable cause.
The video shows an officer using an unauthorized chokehold that – together with chest compression – killed a man in broad daylight in front of a host of witnesses.
This wasn’t premeditated murder, but it’s looks a lot like involuntary manslaughter, even factoring in the discretion police need to do their jobs. How do you watch that video and not see some kind of criminal charge in what was declared a homicide?
This gets to another problem: The video is pretty much the only thing the public has. The evidence the grand jury heard and saw has not been released and may never be.
The release of the exhibits in the Michael Brown case clarified why the Missouri grand jury chose not to indict Officer Darren Wilson: Given the physical evidence in that case, no 12 jurors were going to make a unanimous decision to convict the officer.
But Pantaleo’s case remains a riddle. Unless the public sees what his grand jury saw, there’s good reason to believe that some miscarriage of justice happened during the nine weeks its members met.
We’re left with the video. And what the video shows – an unarmed black man jumped by police and killed while pleading to breathe – is damning.