All democrats want to take your guns. All republicans are racist. So is law enforcement, and police brutality is commonplace.
Of course, none of those statements is true but they highlight the groupthink that has infected the national conversation. When a police-involved death occurs it seems there are no shades of grey anymore, no need for facts, clarifying details or perspective – just the knee-jerk conclusion that the police officer was wrong.
At the last democratic presidential debate the opening statement of candidate Bill DeBlasio, Mayor of New York City, was interrupted by chants of “Fire Pantaleo!” It was a reference to NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo who is white and was blamed for the 2014 “chokehold death” of a black man named Eric Garner. Pantaleo has described his action as more of a “wrestling” or “seat belt” maneuver designed to bring down a disorderly suspect.
The backstory: Garner had been warned or arrested multiple times for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island’s Bay Street. On the day Garner died police got a call about a disturbance there and when they arrived they recognized Garner. The 43-year-old father of six tried to explain that he had just broken up a fight between two men and was not selling cigarettes. Garner raised his arms and his voice and said he was tired of being harassed by police. He told the two responding officers, “No more. This stops today!”
On this hot July day, Garner, a man who weighed 395 pounds, had asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure and an enlarged heart resisted police, flailed his arms and refused to cooperate. Officer Pantaleo moved in to arrest and subdue him, grabbing Garner from behind and ending up in the oft-reported chokehold. Almost immediately there were more than half a dozen officers on the scene. Also there were remarkably inattentive paramedics who rendered no aid in the crucial early minutes after Garner slammed to the ground and repeatedly uttered, “I can’t breathe.”
Garner was pronounced dead about an hour after this encounter. The medical examiner’s report said the death resulted from a “cascade of events” starting with the chokehold. The M.E. cited Garner’s asthma, heart disease and obesity as contributing factors to this “homicide.” (That designation does not mean a crime has occurred.) It’s likely that if Garner had simply cooperated with police he would not have died that day.
So, did the cascade of events start with the chokehold or did it start when Garner stubbornly refused to cooperate triggering the hands-on confrontation? Should the officers have simply taken Garner’s word that he wasn’t breaking the law and walked away? What personal responsibility does a suspect have if their actions ultimately lead to them being hurt or killed?
In late 2014, a Grand Jury declined to indict Pantaleo. Last month, after a lengthy investigation by the feds, the U.S. Justice Department decided not to charge officer Pantaleo in Garner’s death. Garner’s supporters, unhappy with the outcome of this due process, still continue to press for what they call “justice” staging nationwide street protests and the nationally broadcast debate disruption. They want Pantaleo to be held accountable for the death and, at the very least, they want him fired and stripped of his pension.
An administrative law judge recently ruled Pantaleo was “reckless” during the Garner arrest and should be dismissed from the force. But the final decision is up to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill who says he will likely decide by the end of this month.* O’Neill is under tremendous pressure from all sides.
The point here is that almost all police involved deaths, including fatal shootings, are a cascade of events. Some occur when an officer confronts a criminal in the act, many happen when police respond to domestic abuse calls which are notoriously dangerous for cops. Sometimes an officer responds with deadly force because they truly fear for their life and the safety of the public. Some are simply accidents.
Are there dangerous, rogue cops that need to be removed? You bet, but the vast majority go to work every day to keep the public peace.
There are 670 thousand full time law enforcement officers in the United States. It is simply not fair to paint them all with the racist brush so many employ these days. Officer Pantaleo was trying to do his job that day, taking an uncooperative suspect into custody. Did Garner’s death result from police brutality, or was it a tragic accident when a much smaller police officer tried to subdue a large suspect who aggressively did not want to comply? Was the fatal health event Garner suffered in his agitated state the cop’s fault or Garner’s own?
Asking these questions is not victim shaming. It is a path to get to the truth. And the truth is, the growing trend toward distrust of police leaves us with officers who can become more preoccupied with protecting themselves and less so with protecting us.
UPDATE AFTER THIS COLUMN RAN:
New York Post: On August 19, 2019 NYPD Commissioner O’Neill called the incident an “irreversible tragedy” and faulted both men for their actions, saying that Garner shouldn’t have resisted arrest and that Pantaleo should have “re-adjusted his grip” after forcing Garner to the sidewalk. O’Neill then announced he had fired Officer Pantaleo. O’Neill added, “If I was still a cop, I’d probably be mad at me” but, noted that his job required him to “think about the rules and regs of the NYPD.”
Pantaleo quickly announced he will sue to try to get his job back.