Did Officer Pantaleo cross the line?
“There are no facts, only interpretations.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
On July 17th, 2014, New York police approached Eric Garner outside a Tompkinsville strip mall. They believed that he had been selling loose cigarettes, which is illegal in the state of New York. Upon questioning him, Garner became agitated, stating that he had done nothing wrong, and that he was being unfairly targeted by the police department. When the officers attempted to place handcuffs of him, the tall, nearly 400 lb Garner resisted, causing officer Daniel Pantaleo to attempt to subdue him with what appeared to be a choke hold. We know this because it’s all on video–a video shot by Garner’s friend. As Garner went down, he yelled out approximately eleven times that he could not breathe. Following this, Garner stopped breathing, and died several minutes later. Given this information, would you indict officer Pantaleo? A grand jury decided not to indict, leading to protests, and riots. But was the grand jury’s decision wrong?
We have been conditioned by the media machine to assume guilt before innocence, despite our legal system being arranged so as to presume innocence first. Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Even conservative pundits seemed outraged that officer Pantaleo had escaped indictment. But the requirement for indictment is probable cause, and for the New York grand jury, there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest that. There are numerous pieces we must consider before we can say that officer Pantaleo should be indicted in the death of Eric Garner. First, and foremost, we must ask one question: was there intent on the part of officer Pantaleo to harm, or kill Eric Garner, and is there evidence to that effect? I would argue that there was not evidence to suggest that Pantaleo intended to cause harm to Garner.
There are several mitigating factors that lead me to this conclusion. First, the alleged choke hold used by Pantaleo. According to Pantaleo, what we saw in the video was not a choke hold, but a submission move he learned in the academy, in which the carotid arteries on either side of the neck are compressed in order to reduce, or stop blood flow to the brain, causing the suspect to lose consciousness. Pantaleo denies that he ever used, or intended to use a “choke hold,” which has been banned by the New York police department since 1993.
Second, Eric Garner’s health. It is widely known at this point that Eric Garner suffered several major health problems, including extreme obesity, and severe asthma. Garner’s asthma was so severe that he allegedly had to quit his job at the city parks department, where he was a horticulturalist. It is believed that the stress of the incident, combined with the submission takedown, triggered Garner’s asthma, which caused him to stop breathing, and eventually die.
However, regardless of Pantaleo’s intent, it was noted in the medical examiner’s report that Eric Garner died, in part, due to “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” It was further noted by Dr. Michael Baden, who conducted an Independent review of the autopsy, that there were multiple hemorrhages in Garner’s neck, and eyes: “…the female (ph), she found that there were 10 hemorrhages on the inside of the neck, in the muscles of the neck, petechial hemorrhages in the eye, hemorrhage in the tongue. And those are all evidence of neck compression. You’re right, chokehold has many different meanings in all. What we’re concerned at autopsy is was there pressure on the neck.”
It is an unfortunate and tragic thing that Eric Garner died during the course of his arrest, but the question of whether or not to indict officer Pantaleo should not be influenced by our emotions regarding the tragic nature of the incident, but rather by the evidence. We want to see justice when someone is wrongfully killed, but we cannot assume that an indictment against officer Pantaleo is how to get it. We must first asses to the best of our ability Pantaleo’s intent.
Is there any evidence to suggest that officer Pantaleo acted either negligently, or criminally? Criminality suggests an intent to do harm. From Pantaleo’s testimony, and the video footage, it can be reasonably concluded that it was not the intent of the officer to harm Garner, but rather to subdue him, given his size, and his resistance. As we now know, the submission “choke hold” was not the sole cause of death, but merely the trigger for Garner’s asthma, which was ultimately what caused him to stop breathing. Had Pantaleo intended to do harm, he could have done much worse. Pantaleo could not have know that Garner had severe health problems, let alone such a specific one as asthma. The hemorrhages can easily be attributed to the difference in size between Pantaleo, and Garner. Pantaleo may have accidentally applied too much pressure, given Garner’s height, and stature. The hemorrhages are not necessarily indicative of an intent to harm, especially given Pantaleo’s prior record, and nine years of service.
Negligence suggests unnecessary force. But once again, was Pantaleo’s use of force over the line? Had Garner not suffered from asthma, it is very likely that the submission hold used by Pantaleo would have done nothing more than subdue Garner. In that case, would it have been even suggested that excessive force was used? I believe not. The only reason behind the suggestion of excessive force was that Garner died as a result of the incident. There is debate as to the nature of the submission move, and whether or not it can be classified as the type of “choke hold” banned by the New York police department, but it is clear that the suggestion of excess stems from the fact that Garner died, rather than the actual inciting incident. To suggest negligence, one must look at the actions of the officer, not only the result of those actions.
It can be argued that the exoneration of Officer Daniel Pantaleo was justified. So far as I can see, there was no negligence, nor was there any intent to do harm. It was simply a series of unfortunate events which lead to the death of Eric Garner. This is not to say that officer Pantaleo is not culpable. There is a difference between culpability, and guilt. Pantaleo’s actions resulted in a death. Though it was likely not his intent to cause Eric Garner’s death, Pantaleo does bear some responsibility for what happened. Does he deserve prison time for what occurred? I would, once again, argue against that. Intent is critical in establishing guilt, and guilt is what defines criminality.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo may be punished in some way for his behavior, but I agree with the grand jury’s decision not to indict. While he was indeed partially culpable, he did not behave in a negligent or criminal manner.