The death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer was tragic and unnecessary. Whether it was criminal is a more complicated question. A Staten Island grand jury did not believe so, deciding this week not to bring any changes against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who in August put Garner in a headlock when the suspect, who was illegally selling single cigarettes, resisted arrest. Lying on the ground, surrounded by police, Garner repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe” before suffering fatal cardiac arrest. The confrontation was captured on videotape.
The availability of the footage has ensured that everyone has an opinion about the incident — but the circumstances of the case, and the laws governing it, are not at all straightforward. The root legal question — was Officer Pantaleo’s use of force justified? — is enormously involved, relying on knotty New York criminal statutes, and it is complicated by the facts of the incident. It remains unclear, for example, whether the chokehold technique Pantaleo applied is one explicitly banned by NYPD guidelines, which, furthermore, do not make chokeholds illegal. The state’s medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide (in a medical, not a legal, sense), but Garner’s asthma, obesity, and heart problems also apparently contributed. Garner also resisted arrest, albeit mildly. All of this has made the case particularly thorny. Until the evidence presented to the grand jury is made available, it is difficult to assess their decision.
What is clear, however, is that this did not need to happen. It is evident from the video footage that Officer Pantaleo, whether criminally or not, responded aggressively to a citizen who was not a threat, and whose crime was minor. Law enforcement must be granted latitude to enforce the law, but it is not clear why Garner’s offense necessitated arrest, and why that arrest was so urgent that it required aggressive force.
It is worth remembering that Garner’s encounter with the police was largely a by-product of government action — namely, of the punitive tax on selling single cigarettes that has generated a thriving black market. This is something New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, with his imperious excise regime, would do well to keep in mind. There would be fewer rogue offenders if legislators and bureaucrats concocted fewer petty offenses.
There is room for reform on the law-enforcement side, too, such as measured policy changes making it easier to terminate police officers if it is established that they have violated internal guidelines. Local policymakers should be willing to thoughtfully explore other options as well. Unfortunately, though, no police regime is going to avoid every terrible accident.
Don’t tell that to the protesters who have taken to the streets in New York City and across the country. The vast majority have adopted the familiar meme “Black Lives Matter” and claim that Garner’s death is only the latest example of institutional racism in America’s criminal-justice system, from the squad car to the jury box: Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin are all of a piece. But there is no indication that Garner’s race had anything to do with his treatment by police, or that Pantaleo’s had anything to do with the grand jury’s decision not to indict. Furthermore, the facts of Garner’s case and Brown’s are wildly different — which helps explain why many of those who believed the Ferguson grand jury was correct are questioning the grand jury in Staten Island. The race-obsessed Left, though, merely sees a white cop and a black victim.
Eric Garner’s case was tragic, preventable — and, thankfully, rare. There were 228,000 misdemeanor arrests in New York City in 2013, and none of them resulted in a death. The claims of demonstrators notwithstanding, Garner’s death has occasioned outrage not because it is another example of a common occurrence, but because it is virtually unique. That is no reason to pardon Officer Pantaleo, if in fact his actions were criminal; and despite the wide latitude they must be given to perform their duties, law-enforcement officers, too, must be subject to the letter of the law. But a death like Eric Garner’s is vanishingly unlikely in modern-day America, and that is reason not for outrage, but for optimism.