10 December 2014

Upsetting Facts about the Garner Case

Stephen Kershnar
Eric Garner and Police Violence
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 7, 2014

Most readers are familiar with Eric Garner’s death. In Staten Island on July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was approached by a police officer for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. After he vehemently protested being arrested for this, another police officer (Daniel Pantaleo) put a chokehold on him, despite the fact that the NYPD bans such a hold. Pantaleo already had previous complaints for misconduct filed against him. While the chokehold was in place, other officers kept Garner pinned down. Garner said he couldn’t breathe eleven times.

An hour later, Garner was pronounced dead. The city’s medical examiners found that he was killed by neck and chest compression and prone positioning and that contributing factors included Garner’s suffering from asthma, heart disease, obesity, and hypertension. The four medics at the scene didn’t give Garner CPR and were suspended without pay. The police department stripped Pantaleo of his gun and badge and placed him on desk duty. Last week when a grand jury failed to indict Pantaleo, protests erupted.   

What is upsetting about this case is the intersection of a number of features of the criminal justice system, although it is not clear what connects these features. First, the criminal justice system is locking up far too many black men. Saki Knafo, writing in the Huffington Post, reports that one in three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in time in their lives. This is a staggering figure. Even if the number were only half that, it would still be staggering. The one in three is even more disturbing when one considers the humiliation, stigma, and reduced employment that follows prison, along with the fact that one in five prisoners was forced or pressured into sexual contact.  

Second, writing in the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson points out that the police shoot and kill a significant number of people each year. In 2013, he notes, the police shot and justifiably killed 458 people. That is, more than one a day. Robinson points out that not all police departments report such incidents and so the actual number is likely higher. Two journalists, Reuben Fischer-Baum and Al Johri, estimate that the police shoot and kill around 1,000 people each year, that is, three a day.

This past year the police killed 19% more than usual. Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University, found that police killed on average 385 people per year from 2005 to 2011 (2,706 total). Surprisingly few officers were arrested for negligent homicide during this time, although this is likely in part due to the fact that most of these shootings were justified and because the law gives police a lot of latitude in using deadly force.

It is worth noting that being a police officer has never been safer. Writing the Washington Post, Randy Balko reports that in 2013, 27 police officers were feloniously killed. This was the fewest in more than 50 years and probably the safest year safest year to be a police officer in a century in terms of per capita deaths. In general, being a police officer is not an especially dangerous job. According to 2013 Bureau of Labor statistics, farmers, truck drivers, pilots, roofers, construction workers, and power line workers faced a greater chance of death at work.

The overall data is troublesome, although it is unclear what conclusions should be drawn. The increase in the number of people the police killed when crime is steadily decreasing is a concern as one wonders whether police are getting more aggressive or whether there is an increasing number of violent men who clash with the police, especially black men.

Explanations of these killings, especially that of Eric Garner, have focused on racism, police offers’ bad attitudes, or the state’s increasing interference with people’s lives. The racism claim is hard to assess as it is not clear what it’s based on. At the patrol level, probably more than half of the NYPD is not white, so it’s hard to believe that a police force with so many non-whites contains many viciously racist white cops. Also, the frequently false and discredited cries of racism should make people especially wary of this charge. Perhaps racism is playing a role here, but it’s hard to see how we can be confident that it is without studies to show this.    

Frequent anecdotes and youtube videos about incredibly aggressive cops support a second explanation in terms of out-of-control aggression. A recent example of this is Buffalo police officer John Cirulli who was sentenced to probation after having been caught on camera slapping and kicking a man lying on the ground in handcuffs. One gets the sense that this sort of behavior is probably linked to some of the shootings and this would explain why killings are up when crime is down. However, this isn’t much more than a hunch.

A third explanation is the increasingly intrusive government is clashing with people more than ever. David Harsanyi, writing in Reason, argues that the Garner case is a glaring example of this. New York’s nanny government decided to raise cigarette taxes to more than $5 per pack, making them the highest in the country. A predictable black market resulted, Governor Cuomo then initiated a crackdown that predictably has led to the repeated arrest of largely harmless people like Garner.  

In the end, it is hard to know whether there is a problem with police killings. I suspect there is and that it is related to unchecked aggression, but my suspicion isn’t backed by enough evidence to warrant any confidence.

I doubt this is relevant, but in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that the police have made quite a number of visits to my house in the last couple of years because of a highly aggressive ex-wife.  

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