It’s rare that I find myself on opposite sides of an issue from Charles Krauthammer. Such is my respect for his opinions that when I find myself differing with him, I ask where I’ve gone wrong. But not this time.
Appearing Wednesday on the Fox News Channel’s Special Report, Dr. Krauthammer was discussing the decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to indict an NYPD officer in the July 17 death of Eric Garner, a decision he described as “totally incomprehensible.” I’m sorry, Dr. K., but I don’t find it the least bit incomprehensible.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo was one of several officers involved in the incident, and it was he who grabbed Garner in what has often been described as a “chokehold,” which has been erroneously attributed as the cause of Garner’s death (the medical examiner described it as a contributing factor). In the widely seen video of the arrest, Pantaleo can be seen with his arm around Garner’s neck as Garner is taken to the ground and for some time thereafter, but in watching the video it’s difficult to determine whether Garner was in fact choked. And if he was, it did not appear it was long enough even to render him unconscious, much less kill him.
Much has been made of Garner’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe as he was held on the ground, and in retrospect those pleas are all the more disturbing to hear given what we know to have happened soon thereafter. But the fact that Garner was saying he could not breathe was in itself evidence that he could, for if he was truly unable to breathe then neither could he have spoken. And as Garner was saying these words, neither Pantaleo nor any other officer was holding the man’s neck.
I saw nothing excessive in the manner in which the officers subdued Garner. He was neither beaten with batons nor even punched. To me, it appeared to be a fairly typical scuffle with a large man who had clearly demonstrated his unwillingness to be arrested peacefully. Pantaleo and another plainclothes officer were the first to have contacted Garner, and they showed good judgment by waiting for additional officers to arrive before moving in for the arrest. But once Garner showed he would not willingly be handcuffed, things happened as they most often do in these situations: The cops grabbed whatever part of Garner they could and wrestled him to the ground. It happens every day in any large city you could name. Given Garner’s medical condition, which included obesity, asthma, and high blood pressure, it seems very possible he would have died from the exertion of the scuffle in any case, even if no officer had touched his neck at all.
Where I do find fault with the officers is in their failure to bring Garner to a seated position as soon as they had him under control. Police trainers have long been aware of a phenomenon known as positional asphyxia, in which a person subdued as Garner was can die if left lying in a prone position for too long. Obese people are known to be at a greater risk of this condition than others. The civil case to follow will likely rest on this lapse as much as it does on the use of force itself.
One reason Dr. Krauthammer and so many others are expressing their shock at the grand jury’s decision is the triviality of the crime for which the officers sought to arrest Garner: selling individual, untaxed cigarettes on the street. It’s unfortunate that NYPD officers have been pressed into service as enforcers for the nanny state that New York City has become, but don’t put a law on the books if you don’t want the cops to enforce it, and don’t ask them to enforce it if you’re not willing to accept the fact that violence will sometimes occur when people resist that enforcement.
— Jack Dunphy is the nom de cyber of a police officer in Southern California.