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The policing conversation no one wants to have.

December 4, 2014

On the heels of Ferguson, we have another riot-prone grand jury verdict.

People look at the video of the arrest attempt and ask “How could they fail to indict the officer?”

Without a full transcript of the grand jury proceedings, that’s a tough question to answer, but stepping back and looking at such facts as have been publicized, the video may show a lot more than is evident at first glance.

Leaving aside the other meager facts that have surfaced publicly to date for a moment, let’s examine the video again.

The officers walk up to Mr. Garner and speak to him, presumably telling him he was under arrest. Mr. Garner does not put his hands up in surrender. He uses his hands to try to fend off the officers trying to place him in handcuffs and pulls away from them.

An officer then puts his hand and arm around Mr. Garner’s neck. From the angle the video was shot, it clearly looks like a chokehold.

However, in something like ten seconds he is brought down by the combined body weight of at least three and possibly four officers and it is clear that there is no chokehold being employed at that time. The whole incident reportedly took just 69 seconds.

One officer is holding Mr. Garner’s head down on the pavement, with his head twisted to the side so that his cheek and the side of his face are in full contact with the pavement. Another officer has nearly his full body weight across Mr. Garner’s torso. Other officer’s are also attempting to hold him still and handcuff him.

During the entire time, Mr. Garner is shouting quite loudly that he can’t breathe.

At some point, although the publicly shown part of the video doesn’t show us everything, he stops breathing and is subsequently pronounced dead.

The coroner finds that chest compressions and neck compressions caused his death. The coroner  also reports that there is no damage to the deceased’s windpipe or cervical vertebrae, both injuries that are often consistent with a chokehold.

If that is the only information available, how do you jump from that to the chokehold by one officer causing the death?

Based on just the video alone, there is no way a fair and impartial jury could hold just one officer responsible for Mr. Garner’s death. At least four officers had their hands on him, so why single out just one? Because of a ten-second chokehold that clearly did not kill him?

You have a morbidly obese man being held down against a hard surface with his full body weight, reported at 360 pounds, pressing on his internal organs and in addition you have at least another 100-plus pounds being added by the weight of the police officers attempting to hold him in place. An African-American officer later identified as a sergeant was observing and did not step in at any time to halt the procedures.

From a physical standpoint, Mr. Garner’s health-related issues certainly impacted his physical ability to withstand a restraint procedure employed tens of thousands of times across the U.S. that do not end in the arrestee’s death.

From a sociological  standpoint, if he had simply surrendered, those restraint procedures would not have been necessary, and he would still be alive.

In both the Brown and Garner arrests, the underlying cause of death was that the people in question resisted arrest.

That is the angle that never seems to enter into the reasoning of the Al Sharptons of the world.

It also doesn’t answer another question.

If officers are not allowed to use any force against a suspect, why should we pay for them at all? Is all force police brutality?

It’s easy to armchair quarterback these two situations. Should the NYPD sergeant at the scene have called off the officers sooner? Could she, in 69 seconds, have determined how very badly wrong this was going to go? Should the Ferguson police department have had a policy that all nonlethal forms of restraint, such as the tazer left behind that day in Ferguson, be carried at all times?

Those are easy conversations to have in the safety of your living room.

The very people that are now clamoring for the police to use restraint are the same ones that get on camera and complain that the police don’t protect minorities in their neighborhoods. The officers in the Garner case were responding to a citizen complaint. Should they have ignored it when they saw that the suspect was a black man?

Trying to come up with a fail-safe mathematical formula for how much force to use isn’t practical either.

Forget cameras, are we going to invent a force sensor for officers to wear to measure what amount of force is just right in every individual situation?

It’s fine to have a conversation about when to use force to arrest someone. In both cases, the underlying complaint was probably going to result in a fine or a minimum penalty at best. Were the charges worth someone’s life?  In hindsight, the answer is an unequivocal no. Not the suspects, and not the officers either.

Just as officers often break off a high speed chase when it becomes too dangerous, we could have a conversation about when it’s better to just back off and arrest the suspects at a later date, and what happens if in the ensuing timeframe, the suspect hurts or kills someone.

The danger in both of these cases is that the police will simply stop responding to interracial disturbances of any kind.

Should we have several police units or departments in one town that correspond to the racial percentages and who only respond to complaints involving their particular race?  Even if we did that, would it cure the problem? The presence of an African-American sergeant certainly didn’t positively impact the result for Mr. Garner.

Even if you accept the inevitability that some percentage of the human race is always going to commit crimes, respect for laws and law enforcement has to be part of the conversation about interracial policing.

Just as minorities should not be automatically condemned based on their appearance, neither should cops of contrasting races be automatically assumed to be acting out of prejudice.

The past fifty years of promoting a culture of us against them isn’t fixing the problem. Let’s have the politically unpopular conversation and see if it moves us forward.

From → op-ed

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