As protests in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown begin to die down, one must look at the incident again and whether its aftermath, perhaps, opened the door for change in the country regarding race.
Eric Garner was a resident of Staten Island, who was approached by police officers after they believed he was selling loose cigarettes. After Garner accused the officers of harassing him and denied selling, the officers attempted to arrest him. This resulted in Garner being wrestled to the ground by multiple officers, with one applying a chokehold.
The scuffle resulted in Garner’s death July 17.
The coroner ruled Garners death a homicide caused by “neck compression,” but the grand jury decided not to indict the officers involved in the murder. The case spurred several protests throughout the country. It also led activists and politicians on both sides of the racial divide to dig in their heals in support of their position to the exclusion of all others.
Peter King, a U.S. representative from New York, blamed Garners weight and diagnosed heart condition for his death saying, “If he had been healthier, he would not have died of that chokehold.” Apparently, Rep. King doesn’t believe that thin, healthy people can die from asphyxiation.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the conflict, some protestors charge that “black civilian deaths” at the hands of the police are “getting out of control,” despite a lack of much statistical data to back up the claim.
One of the reasons the issue of civilian death by police is so divisive is because there is no empirical evidence to support anyone’s point-of-view. Consequently, individuals choose to see a case like Eric Garner’s and derive whatever relevance they want from it. More often than not, their own political leanings determine the truth in their eyes.
As Five-Thirty-Eight columnist Rueben Fischer-Baum points in a recent column, the main problem is that while the number of “justifiable homicides” is kept by the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report (SHI), there is no method of policing the number of homicides deemed “unjustified.”
Additionally, the numbers of individuals killed by police broken down by race will contain a plethora of caveats that will not shine much light on the issue. It’s likely that the Garner protests will end without any actual establishment change resulting from it. But I believe that people on both sides of the issue would benefit by considering the following solutions to these deaths at the hands of law enforcement.
The first lesson should be: Don’t commit crimes and if you do, obey the police.
This suggestion will not make the protesters happy, but I can’t ignore the role Michael Brown’s decision to give chase, and Garner’s mild belligerence, played in contributing to their deaths.
I’m not saying they deserved it. I know the penalty for strong arm robbery and selling loose cigarettes is not death, and it is unfortunate what occurred. But the fact remains that arguing with the police at the scene is always a bad idea. It will lead to a quick escalation and possible violent confrontation which the police, who are bound to win. Do you want to argue the facts of your arrest? Exercise your right to remain silent and take it up with your attorney.
The second lesson is: there needs to be more accountability in the District Attorney’s office. People need to realize that the local prosecutor has little incentive to actively pursue charges against law enforcement in their state because of how intertwined the dealings of the two agencies are. The prosecutor needs law enforcement to help build its cases, and law enforcement needs the prosecutor the secure a conviction from the evidence it collects.
A prosecutor would loose credibility and the trust of the law enforcement community if he actively “went after police officers.” This means eliminating that special interest through independent investigations or special prosecutors.
It’s the only way that there can be transparency in the judicial process without the feeling that a group of jury members, law enforcement officials and state attorney’s hatched out an agreement behind closed doors to not indict.
Obviously, the Eric Garner case suggests that there is change that is needed to prevent such violent confrontations between civilians and police.
But the sooner both sides are willing to admit its own failings, the sooner those changes can begin.