Who Polices the Police in America?

eric garner

Our government… teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis

The tip of the iceberg: Not isolated cases

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, a 43 year-old African American, was approached by at least four New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers who suspected him of  selling contraband (“loosies”) cigarettes outside of a store. In a cell phone video of the incident, Garner denies doing anything wrong and that he is constantly harassed by police. He protests to the officer:

Every time you see me, you want to arrest me. I am tired of it. It stops today. Everybody standing her saw  I didn’t do nothin’. I did not sell nothing. Every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me. You want to arrest me for selling cigarettes. I am minding my own business officer. I am minding my own business. I told you for the last time, please leave me alone… Don’t touch me…

The police did not leave him alone. A half-dozen police officers pounced on Garner. One of the officers goes for the jugular and catches Garner by the neck and puts an illegal chokehold on him. As I saw the video, the image that instantly flashed in my mind was the gentle wary African buffalo under savage attack by a cackle of hyenas on the African plains, except the attack on Garner was happening in the concrete jungle of New York City.

The police slam Garner to the ground. His hands are handcuffed behind his back. Police officers have their knees on Garner’s back and face as he lay on the ground. He cries out, “I can’t breathe” eleven times.  Tattooed and pumped up police officers surround Garner inspecting his lifeless body like hunters on an African safari. They touch various parts of his body to determine if he is breathing, if he is alive. They do not administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or provide him any aid whatsoever.  An officer says, “He can’t breathe.”

A paramedic arrives on the scene. She feels Garner’s neck to determine if he has a pulse. She tries to communicate with the unconscious Garner. “Sir, it’s EMS. We’re here to help you.  We’ll get you in the stretcher. Alright?” She does not administer emergency cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a common procedure used in situations like Garner’s to help a patient breathe and restore normal functions. The paramedic walks away. Garner is placed on a stretcher. Garner was dead on arrival at the hospital.

The cell phone video shows Garner did not pose any threat to the police officers or anyone else standing outside the store. He stood complaining about police harassment in a T-shirt and shorts. He was not armed. He did not shove or attack any police officers nor did he pose any threats to them at any point in the arrest process. In the end, a  half-dozen police officers pounced on Garner and choked him to death for the crime of selling untaxed cigarettes. Was Garner a victim of an extrajudicial execution by NYPD officers?

A New York grand jury “investigated” Garner’s death for nine weeks and refused to indict (merely issue an accusation, not actually try him for the crime) Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who put the illegal chokehold on Garner causing his death so he could stand trial for the death of Garner. By refusing to indict, the grand jury effectively determined it found no probable cause (reasonable grounds) that a crime was committed in the death of Garner. In other words, the grand jury determined Garner died for reasons unrelated to any actions or omissions by NYPD officers or that Garner’s death was a justifiable homicide.

For Garner’s family and the millions of people throughout the world who saw the video of the extrajudicial execution of Garner by the police, the grand jury’s  message was simple: “Are you going to believe us, the grand jury who sat deliberating the case for nine weeks, or your lying, thieving and astigmatic eyes?”

What is incredible and incomprehensible about the grand jury’s actions is the fact that there was substantial evidence to support probable cause that Officer Pantaleo who is seen in the video putting an illegal chokehold on Garner is undoubtedly a  prime suspect in the second-degree manslaughter of Garner. Article 125.15 of the New York Penal Law provides: “A person is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree when: 1. He recklessly causes the death of another person;…”

The New York law is plain and requires little interpretation: If a person causes a death in a reckless act, that person is guilty of second degree manslaughter. Reckless simply means without regard to the consequences of one’s act or in disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm to others.

The grand jury also considered the fact that Officer Pantaleo used an arrest procedure prohibited by the NYPD, which by itself is a reckless act within the meaning of Article 125.15 of the New York Penal Law sufficient to charge Pantaleo  for second degree manslaughter. The NYPD Patrol Guide emphatically prohibits use of chokehold:

P.G. 203-11 Use Of Force Date Effective: 01-01-00. Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT use chokeholds. A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to, any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air. Whenever it becomes necessary to take a violent or resisting subject into custody, responding officers should utilize appropriate tactics in a coordinated effort to overcome resistance…

Officer Pantaleo has a serious history of abuse in making arrests. He had been sued at least three times prior to the Garner incident.  According to USA Today, “in a 2013 federal court lawsuit Pantaleo and at least four other officers subjected [the plaintiffs] to ‘humiliating and unlawful strip searches in public view’ after handcuffing them during a March 2012 arrest on Staten Island.” New York City settled the case with the plaintiffs.

On August 9, 2014, Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an 18 year-old African American named Michael Brown  in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. The undisputed facts in the killing indicate that Wilson approached Brown and his friend as they were walking in the middle of a neighborhood street. Officer Wilson told them to get on the sidewalk. Words were exchanged between Wilson and Brown. A physical altercation occurred. Officer Wilson fired his gun and struck Brown. Brown and his friend ran from the scene. Officer Wilson chased Brown and continued firing at him. Wilson shot twelve rounds. Brown was struck by 7 or 8 of the rounds. Officer Wilson and other officers left Brown’s dead body in the street for four hours!!!

The local prosecutor who had authority to charge Officer Wilson chose to refer the matter to a grand jury.  Years ago, the prosecutor’s father was a police officer who was killed in an incident with an African-American suspect. Many members of the prosecutor’s  family including his mother, brother, uncle and cousin had served with the St. Louis Police Department. In 23 years, the prosecutor had taken criminal cases to a grand jury only five times. In all other criminal cases, the prosecutor’s office had filed criminal charges against suspects without a grand jury investigation.

The prosecutor presented Officer Wilson’s case to the grand jury to determine “whether a crime was committed and whether there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed it”.  The grand jury refused to indict (issue an accusation) Wilson. Wilson’s case was the fifth time in 23 years that the prosecutor had presented evidence to a grand jury in prosecuting an officer involved in a shooting. In none of the cases the prosecutor had presented to a grand jury did he obtain an indictment.

On New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant III, a 22 year-old African American was fatally shot in the back by Bay Area Rapid Transit Police (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California.  Mehserle and other BART officers responded to a disturbance call at a subway station. Mehserle and another officer forced Grant to the ground and held him. Grant was unarmed. Mehserle stood up and told his fellow officer, “Get back, I’m gonna Tase him.” Mehserle pulled out his gun and shot Grant once in the back. The next morning Grant died. Mehserle was charged with murder, but the jury found him guilty of  involuntary manslaughter (accidental, unintended killing).  Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison.  He completed his sentence in county jail!

On November 25, 2006, NYPD plain-clothed and undercover officers fired a total of fifty rounds killing Sean Bell, a 23 year-old African American and injuring his friends. Bell and his friends were having a bachelor’s party at a club the officers were investigating for prostitution. Bell and his friends walked out of the club and got into their cars. They were unarmed. Witnesses testified the officers without warning began firing at the vehicle occupied by Bell and his friends. Three officers were charged with various offenses including second-degree manslaughter. They were acquitted!

On February 4, 1999, four plain-clothed NYPD officers from the Street Crimes Unit shot and killed a 23 year-old young African immigrant named Amadou Diallo as he stood outside his apartment. The officers fired a total of 41 shots, 19 of which struck Diallo. Four officers were charged with second-degree murder and all were acquitted!

In July 2014, a cell phone video showed an officer of California Highway Patrol trying to detain a homeless African American woman along the freeway. She appeared to be moving away from him. The officer grabbed her and threw her to the ground. In an act of rarely seen savagery by a police officer, he proceeded to furiously punch her 11 times in the face. He later resigned from the CHP.

The problem of police abuse of authority and excessive use of force is a nationwide problem which affects both the smallest and largest police departments. On December 4, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice issued its “Investigation of the Cleveland Division of Police”. The report “concluded that [the Department of Justice has] reasonable cause to believe that CDP engages in a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. We have determined that structural and systemic deficiencies and practices—including insufficient accountability, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate engagement with the community—contribute to the use of unreasonable force…”

study released by the American Civil Liberties Union in  October 2014,  showed Boston police officers disproportionately observed, interrogated, or searched black residents from 2007 to 2010. According to the study, Boston police targeted Blacks in 63.3% of encounters although Blacks make up less than a quarter of Boston’s population. “This racial disparity cannot be explained away by BPD efforts to target crime”, the study concluded.

A 2008 study of racially disparate outcomes in the Los Angeles Police Department reported that there was “prima facie evidence that African Americans and Hispanics are over-stopped, overfrisked, over-searched, and over-arrested. After controlling for violent and property crime rates in specific LAPD reporting districts, as well as a range of other variables, we find that: Per 10,000 residents, the black stop rate is 3,400 stops higher than the white stop rate, and the Hispanic stop rate is almost 360 stops higher.”

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