Something has got to change!

Not a lot of blogging today (obviously), but a lot of reading about the about the failure to indict the policeman who suffocated Eric Garner to death.  I really thought we would actually have an indictment here.  It’s there on video for all to see that the police just keep sitting on and choke-holding a man repeating “I can’t breathe” in ever greater distress.  In what moral universe or system of justice is this remotely acceptable?!  (Sadam Hussein’s Iraq comes to mind).

Anyway, a lot of semi-related thoughts on the matter…

1) I was really struggling to understand how there could not even be an indictment in this case with the video.  Short answer: the prosecutor clearly did not want there to be.  Amy Davidson explains:

As a matter of process, the route to the failure to indict is probably simple: the prosecutor who presented the case led the grand jurors that way. That’s how grand juries tend to work (and why criticisms of the outcome should not be taken as an attack on individual jurors); the bar for them to find probable cause to charge a person is low, unless—as transcripts show was the case in Ferguson—prosecutors decide to raise it. Given the incarceration rates in this country, most people don’t need a video tape to know that. The proceedings in Staten Island are still secret, but Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, told the Times that his client spoke to the grand jury for two hours. (Most potential defendants don’t get that chance.) …

A central issue in cases like this is a failure to fully value black lives. That alone can be deadly. But we should also ask about a companion problem, one that shows itself the most with regard to accountability: an over-weighting of white intentions. As any prosecutor knows, there are offenses on the books that don’t turn on a will to murder, or crude racism, or even unkindness.

Did Pantaleo intend to kill Garner?  I seriously doubt it, but that just means it’s not first or second degree murder.  It is still a heinous crime that demands accountability.  I’m sure the moron in Raleigh hotel room who was doing God knows what with his gun, but managed to shoot and kill the 14-year old boy sleeping in hotel room next door had no intention of killing anybody.  But he’ll be put away for a good long time and rightly so.

I talked to a friend (from the Soviet Union, originally) today who was equally upset as this reminded him far more of his old country than what he thought to expect of his new home.  He relayed a story of talking to an assistant federal prosecutor in the gym who clearly say pretty much all cops as on the same “team” and surely could not be counted on to give a fair prosecution for a law enforcement official accused of wrongdoing.

2) I had just been reading the other day on the latest evidence that “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” are not actually responsible for reducing crime.  That said, it’s pretty clear that Eric Garner–who’s alleged offense was selling untaxed cigarettes– was killed in the name of broken windows policing where every crime, no matter how minor, is strongly addressed by police.  Nice piece in Slate:

We do know that the declines in violent crime in New York have been comparable to declines in cities that didn’t use Compstat or broken windows. As criminologist Richard Rosenfeld put it in a 2002 paper, “homicide rates also have decreased sharply in cities that did not noticeably alter their policing policies, such as Los Angeles, or that instituted very different changes from those in New York, such as San Diego.” The takeaway: Crime just keeps going down everywhere. Nobody is sure why…

[aside: the evidence for lead is pretty damn good!]

This renewed emphasis on misdemeanor “quality of life” arrests has sparked renewed criticisms from community members who are tired of being hassled. These criticisms spiked after Garner’s death in July. Six members of New York’s congressional delegation sent Attorney General Eric Holder a letter noting that “Mr. Garner’s death has taken place in the context of a broken windows policing strategy that appears to target communities of color for the enforcement of minor violations and low-level offenses.”

Two weeks after Garner’s death, de Blasio held a press conference to address these criticisms and defend broken windows. “Breaking a law is breaking a law, and it has to be addressed,” said de Blasio.

That’s nonsense. The cornerstone of effective policing is discretion. If the cops enforced every single law on the books in every single precinct at all hours of the day, New York City would become a police state. Is that what de Blasio and Bratton want?

3) I’ve been particularly interested in the response to this on the right.  So far I’m modestly encouraged.  If we want meaningful improvement on the matter, it simply has to be bipartisan.  Vox summarizes a lot of conservative outrage (hooray!).  I checked FoxNews.com last night and saw a piece from Krauthammer (!) and a conservative Fox News judge both strongly condeming the failure to indict (hooray!).  Of course, the story has much less play on Fox overall, but still.

Andrew Sullivan is likewise paying attention to the right’s response, and boy does Fox’s Megyn Kelly get it from Sullivan:

I know that some will cavil at my relief that conservatives and liberals can agree on something, but we have to treasure these moments while we can. The exception to all this was Fox News last night. Megyn Kelly’s coverage proved that there is almost no incident in which a black man is killed by cops that Fox cannot excuse or even defend. She bent over backwards to impugn protesters, to change the subject to Ferguson, to elide the crucial fact that the choke-hold was against police procedure, and to imply that Garner was strongly resisting arrest. Readers know I had very mixed feelings about Ferguson. I’m not usually inclined to slam something as overtly racist. But there was no way to interpret Kelly’s coverage as anything but the baldest racism I’ve seen in a while on cable news. Her idea of balance was to interview two, white, bald, bull-necked men to defend the cops, explain away any concerns about police treatment and to minimize the entire thing. Truly, deeply disgusting.

So, we’ll have to see how this goes.  I fear that the racism will win out on the right, but if it doesn’t, there’s some real hope for improvement.

4) Naturally, Radley Balko has among the most thoughtful takes (if you click one link, this should be it):

This problem goes well beyond New York City. Abusive cops are notoriously difficult to fire. Even when they can be fired or forced to resign, they often quickly find work in another police agency. We give police officers extraordinary powers. They’re authorized to detain, arrest, injure, and kill. If anything, the laws and internal policies governing how cops are hired and retained should err on the side of exclusion. Instead, the laws are explicitly designed to make it difficult to exclude someone who may be mentally unfit for the job, and even more difficult to dismiss someone once they’ve actually demonstrated that they shouldn’t be trusted with a badge and a gun…

Every law passed also creates more opportunities for interaction with police officers, the people entrusted to use the violence necessary to enforce the laws. How a proposed law will be enforced, and potentially abused, ought to be considered in addition to the content of the law itself…

Moreover, the grand jury in New York determined that Officer Pantaleo acted in accordance with city and state law in the way he apprehended Eric Garner. The same policymakers that passed the tax are also responsible for the laws that govern the way in which that tax is enforced. They could change either policy tomorrow if they wanted. For example, they could require police to make attempts at deescalation before applying force. Or they could tell cops to put a low priority on arresting people who sell loose cigarettes. If they end up changing neither, then yes, they’ll be saying that death is an acceptable outcome for someone who sells loose, untaxed cigarettes. That’s why Garner was apprehended. If Pantaleo didn’t violate law or policy, and there’s nothing wrong with the law or policy, I don’t know how you get around that conclusion.

He’s also got a nice response to those now arguing that this case shows body cameras are useless:

Body cameras are a form of government transparency. Though there is some evidence that they motivate better behavior in both cops and citizens, I don’t think most people who advocates their use would argue that they’d be a panacea in thwarting police misconduct. Instead, like other transparency policies, their primary function is to expose any problems that may exist. The video footage of the Eric Garner arrest has done exactly that.

Drum hits that issue as well:

There are pros and cons to body cameras, but only in the rarest cases will they capture a cop killing someone. Even if, arguendo, they make no difference in these cases, they can very much make a difference in the other 99.9 percent of the cases where they’re used. The grand jury’s decision in the Garner case means a lot of things, but one thing it doesn’t mean is that body cameras are useless.

And I would add that regardless of what’s on the video, wearing cameras surely changes how police act.  And for the better.  Hopefully, the wearing of cameras should reduce unwise action by both police and the civilians they interact with.

5) So, what to do about all this?  So much.  That said, one thing I’ve come away feeling quite strongly about is that regular prosecutors simply cannot be trusted to properly prosecute police who shoot/injure citizens in the course of their policing (police running a drug ring, I’m sure they’ll go after).  It seems pretty clear that a different judicial process is needed in these cases.  The NYT has a forum asking “do cases like Eric Garner’s require a special prosecutor.”  Without reading all the responses, I’m comfortable answering: hell, yeah!  Or if not exactly a special prosecutor, the status quo system sure as hell ain’t working.  That said, former prosecutor Paul Butler makes a very strong case that I think gets right to the problem– the culture:

I speak from whence I know. One reason I became a prosecutor is that I had a number of bad experiences with the police where they racially profiled or just generally disrespected me. I thought I could go in as an undercover brother and change the system from the inside. What happened instead is that the system changed me.

When you work with cops every day you definitely gain more respect for their difficult work. And you need them to help you make your cases (every prosecutor has experienced having a police officer catch an attitude, sometimes in the middle of a trial, and purposely ruin your case because they don’t like you).

And finally policing is like most other employment — a few people do most of the work. So prosecutors see the same cops over and over, and they bond with them. It’s not so much that they excuse egregious misconduct as that they cast a blind eye. Nothing irks a cop more than an elitist prosecutor treating him or her like “some suspect.”

So the problem stems from the culture of the prosecutor’s office, compounded by the fact that, like most lawyers, prosecutors are competitive and ambitious and the way you move ahead is to win your cases, and the way you win cases is get your star witnesses — the cops — to go the extra mile. All that makes it really tough to try to send one of them to prison — even when they have messed up big time, as I believe Pantaleo did when he placed Eric Garner in a banned chokehold.

In a democracy, no one should be above the law. It’s fine for citizens to profoundly respect the men and women who serve as law enforcement officers. But when those people break the law, they must be held accountable just like anyone else. The automatic appointment of special prosecutors in criminal investigations of police is the best way to avoid district attorneys’ natural biases and make sure that justice satisfies the appearance of justice.

Well, damn, that’s a long post!!  Congratulations if you made it this far.  But it’s important.  And I could’ve easily pasted in another dozen clips well worth reading.  As it stands now, America is a country where police officers can essentially kill with impunity as long as they do so while policing.  That’s wrong and that’s not the country I want to live in.  It needs to change and we need to work to advocate for and make that change.  I desperately hope that Eric Garner did not die in vain.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to Something has got to change!

  1. This is an excellent survey article, both of the coverage, and the issues in this deeply troubling case. I’ve been trying to play devil’s advocate, to see how not indicting could possibly be justified, and I couldn’t get there except to conclude the prosecutors did not want indictment. I do think this policeman is more remorseful about the death, compared to Wilson in the Brown case, but he should be. It was a response so far out of proportion to the crime.

  2. samhbrewer says:

    A damning and painful assessment:

    http://theconcourse.deadspin.com/the-american-justice-system-is-not-broken-1666445407

    And the insult to injury. Apparently they did get the bad guy. Guess who…

    http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6264746

  3. R. Jenrette says:

    Fixing these problems is complicated. If you try to hire more black police officers, an est. 25% have criminal records. The number is that high because the enforcement is discriminatory and because some laws are seemingly designed to discriminate(powder cocaine vs crack). So you start with a limited field from which to hire. Then, many eligible candidates may realize they will still be a minority within the police structure and subject to pressure to go along. This has led to separate police officer organizations, one mostly white and one mostly black and minority.
    The overall impulse from which most of our problems between groups of people is the principal of divide and conquer. Public opinion polls indicate that most Americans believe that corporations and business are determined to run things their way, leading to great wealth and income and life chances inequality. How do these forces keep control? Divide and conquer.
    This started after the Civil War when large land owners needed to keep poor white farmers from joining with poor black farmers and uniting to become a major force. Check out a book “The Strange Career of Jim Crow”.
    That is still going on and now is nationwide. They now try to divide blacks from Latinos, women from men, protestors from the rest. They don’t care about the devastating effects on people’s lives. The free (?) press doesn’t explain but makes theater out of the news, diverting public attention.
    Keep your eye on the ball. It’s the economy,s……. The corporate and financial interests that now have so much power to make our lives much less than what they could be need to be controlled by a united citizenry that sees through the web that has come way too close to snaring most of us permanently.

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