Another citizen dies at the hand of a police officer and another grand-jury-in-name-only can't be bothered to return an indictment. I won't rehash the stats, but the grand jury process exists for one purpose: returning indictments. And now a system that almost always acts as the prosecutor's rubber stamp has failed to do so. Of course, in both cases, the accused were law enforcement officers and that changes everything.
There are some similarities between the Eric Garner case and the Michael Brown case, and they are significant. In both cases, the men were large, black and unarmed. In both cases, a minor crime was allegedly involved -- petty theft in Brown's case and (very allegedly -- this narrative appeared well after the initial reports) the sale of untaxed single cigarettes ("loosies") in Garner's.
The cases diverge, as well. Brown was shot. Garner was choked. In Brown's case, there were multiple eyewitnesses, but they offered conflicting and shifting accounts of what happened. In Garner's case, there were multiple unblinking witnesses -- cellphone cameras -- that captured the entire incident.
In both cases, the grand juries spent weeks examining the evidence. Cases involving those outside of the law enforcement community are examined in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. The grand jury doesn't need a preponderance of evidence to return an indictment in 99.9% of its cases. All it needs is a prosecutor to tell it that probable cause exists and what charges it should bring. A minimum of evidence is provided for its consideration and, in almost every case, the grand jury applies the rubber stamp and the wheels of the "justice" system continue to roll.
Officer Pantaleo faced a greater challenge than Officer Wilson, though. There was videotaped evidence of his every move during the incident. At multiple points, his testimony directly contradicted what the recordings showed.
He acknowledged that he heard Mr. Garner saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” and insisted that he tried to disengage as quickly as he could…
Watch the video for yourself and see if Pantaleo's statements match his actions.
Pantaleo may have released the chokehold, but he didn't "disengage." Instead, he moved toward the top of Garner's body and held his face down on the pavement. These two moves, one forbidden and one possibly unnecessary, were all that was needed to kill Eric Garner.
I don't use the word "kill" lightly. That's quoting the findings of the medical examiner. "Compression of the neck and chest." "Homicide." That's from the official autopsy. Garner was killed by Officer Pantaleo.
Pantaleo defended his chokehold further by stating that Garner's audible complaints that he couldn't breathe were evidence that he could actually breathe. Fair enough, I suppose, but what Garner was saying was that he was having great difficulty breathing, using what little oxygen he had available to inform the officer of this fact. Just because he didn't phrase it more accurately doesn't change the facts. Garner had trouble breathing, thanks to Pantaleo's actions, right up until he couldn't breathe anymore.
According to his lawyer, Pantaleo justified his chokehold further -- first by stating his fear for his and the other officers' safety and second, by claiming he detached himself as quickly as he could and cleared the path for paramedics to provide assistance. Again, the video contradicts his testimony.
“That’s why he attempted to get off as quick as he could,” Mr. London said. “He thought that once E.M.T. arrived, everything would be O.K.”
The recordings show Pantaleo restraining Garner well past the point of any resistance before heading to the periphery and waving to the cameras. There's a long wait between Pantaleo's disengagement and the paramedics' arrival, during which time a variety of cops appear to believe (despite the physical evidence they're manhandling) that Eric Garner is simply unconscious -- and attempt to undo his death by shouting at him and rolling his lifeless body back and forth
This death is linked to Ferguson mostly in terms of chronology. Garner's death at the hands of a police officer bears more resemblance to the extended restraint and excessive force that brought about the deaths of Kelly Thomas and David Silva. The autopsies contain certain similarities -- like the listing of preexisting health conditions that may have contributed to their deaths. Of course, it's very likely that all three men would still be alive if not for their "interactions" with law enforcement, but medical examiners aren't really interested in pointing this out.
But Garner's was different in this respect: it was determined to be a homicide. But the grand jury viewed all the evidence provided to them by prosecutors uninterested in prosecuting and somehow managed to avoid bringing any charges at all. As Scott Greenfield states in his excellent writeup on the subject, this presents a bit of a problem. Unlike Missouri, where charges can still be pursued without a grand jury indictment, in New York it's a grand jury or nothing.
The District Attorney of Richmond County, New York, has, by the intentional sabotage of his own grand jury presentment, created the legal conundrum of a homicide without a perpetrator. It cannot be, yet it is, because he chose to make it so.
Pantaleo now resides in this impossible state. Possibly not for long, as the federal government is launching a civil rights inquiry
, but for the time being, he is the recipient of one of the justice system's many "miracles."
While it's true that a medical examiner's declaration of "homicide" doesn't actually denote a criminal act has taken place, it does signify that the death was neither accidental nor natural. There was a perpetrator involved and in a normal
grand jury setting, this would easily have resulted in an indictment. The jury trial following the indictment would have sorted out the particulars of the death, and perhaps Pantaleo would have walked free nonetheless, but because the grand jury process resulted in "no true bill," Garner's death remains in limbo -- a homicide with no perpetrator to hold accountable or to clear of culpability.
The NYPD is readying its body cam pilot program, but that seemingly offers little in the way of reassurance in light of this outcome. We have just seen an officer who choked a man to death walk away a free man, despite three separate recordings of the incident. What good are cameras if the system continues to grant abusive officers this much leeway? What difference does damning footage make when grand juries believe cops' statements about "fear for their safety" more than their own eyes? These questions can't be answered, at least not with any degree of certainty. And they're uncomfortable questions, both for those who fear that excessive force and misconduct will remain a constant no matter what corrective measures are put in place, as well as for those who generally come down on the side of law enforcement. For those wishing to hold police accountable, each incident caught is more evidence of systemic problems. For those siding with the police, it's just one more indefensible position for them to defend.
One thing is certain, this case would never have received as much attention if cameras hadn't
been present. We may not like the outcome, but the process that brought it this far was pushed along by the existence of multiple recordings.
I'm not of the belief that this wholly negates the benefits of body cameras. What it does serious damage to is the notion that they can be tools of greater accountability. The system skews heavily in favor of officers facing charges and hours of footage detailing abuse and misconduct won't change that, at least not on its own. But the gathering of evidence is important, nonetheless. So is the deterrent effect, in which the knowledge of being filmed alters behavior -- both for police officers and the people they interact with.
But using this outcome to declare police body cameras useless accomplishes nothing. We've already seen what happens without them. The alternative is to allow things to proceed as they have so far, and no one's happy with the status quo. The court of public opinion can't return indictments, but it can provoke needed changes within the system -- and that's a lot easier to do when there's footage backing up the claims. It won't be an overnight process, but it can be done.