Eric Garner and Police Impunity

Another grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in the death of an unarmed black man. This time, there was actually video evidence of what went down, and it isn’t pretty. Eric Garner, an asthmatic black man harassed by too many police for selling single cigarettes, was put in a chokehold for “resisting arrest” and then held to the ground. He died shortly thereafter. He wasn’t necessarily choked to death, but there is no doubt that he wouldn’t have died without the police violence against him.

A grand jury decided not to indict the police officer involved in the killing, in spite of the fact that, unlike the Michael Brown case, there can really be no question that this was a wrongful death. And that brings up a troubling issue concerning police body cameras and police impunity.

It seems there really is police impunity. Police are largely protected from indictment no matter what they do. And this is wrong. We don’t live in Mayberry anymore, if we ever did. It is a miscarriage of justice when anyone dies in the process of being arrested for a crime that would never under any circumstances be considered a capital offense.

There are many who think that Eric Garner should have allowed himself to be arrested. Apparently “resisting arrest” is a capital offense. I disagree. Lethal force cannot be justified unless it is exercised in response to a capital offense. If someone pulls a gun on police, or is wanted for murder, then of course, lethal force can be in play. But even in these cases, police should be trained to do everything possible not to use lethal force.

But when a man is selling “illegal” cigarettes, does that justify lethal force? No. It doesn’t. And police officers need to be held accountable, or this situation will only get worse. Police need to be held to the highest standard of conduct, and police impunity needs to be eradicated.

The Eric Garner case also highlights the fact that police body cameras aren’t a cure all. If police are caught in wrongdoing on camera, but then they are not actually charged with criminal offenses against the citizenry, well, what difference did the cameras really make? Cameras aren’t enough. Effective prosecution needs to accompany more effective documentation. And we need to reconsider the nature of resisting arrest. Consider this story:

For example, two officers in the case of Kelly Thomas, who beat Thomas to a bloody pulp, were found not guilty of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Thomas was taken to the hospital and died five days after being savagely beaten.

There was surveillance video in this case. It showed police saying things like, “Do you see my fists? … They’re getting ready to fuck you up,” and, “We ran out of options so I got to the end of my Taser and I … smashed his face to hell.” But the jury found the officers not guilty because the lawyers were able to point to the footage and convince them [Thomas] had been struggling against police. The police had called for backup because they needed help. So, Thomas should not have “resisted” if he wanted to survive the encounter with police.

No. If a citizen is peaceably resisting arrest for a misdemeanor or non-dangerous crime, he should be given a day in court. In this case, perhaps the police should calmly deliver a summons to a court date or something to that effect. And then leave the citizen alone. Part of the problem here is that we are all always doing illegal things because of the ubiquitous and unilateral nature of laws and regulations. So you are always under constant threat of being arrested by police for doing largely harmless things. And if you resist in any way or for any reason, you can be savagely, cold-bloodedly murdered, and your murderers will not even be indicted simply because they are police officers. Please tell me how this is just.

And, as an aside, this is not really a racial issue, as everyone seems to think. The police are treating pretty much everyone with the same level of callous disregard. Not all police, sure. But there is no doubt that the culture within law enforcement encourages over-reaction and violence. Police brutality might be more common in the black community, but that’s because the black community has a disproportionate share of crime. That’s a different problem. A militarized police force violently and arbitrarily harassing no-threat citizens is not a racial problem. It’s a much larger problem. And it needs to be addressed.