Faith, Love, Politics, and Social Justice

The Death of Eric Garner: Brutality or Tragedy?

On July 19, 2014 on a street corner of Staten Island an African-American man named Eric Garner died while being arrested by police for selling “loosies” or individual, untaxed cigarettes. Some say this death was the result of an illegal choke hold, captured on a now well known cell phone video. Once again, an unarmed black man has died in police custody. Once again, the dividing wall of enmity between the police and communities of color is re- fortified with mortar made of tears, anger, outrage, and mutual distrust. As a person of faith committed to police reform as well as a retired NYPD Captain, I feel obliged to speak up about this.
On the one hand, I really want to see change. The legacy of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years, of unconstitutional, quota-based, stop question and frisk tactics, and racial profiling must end. We need much more community-based policing, increased cultural sensitivity, and just plain R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the people the police are supposed to protect and serve. I can only imagine the pain Eric Garner’s family and loved ones are going through and the anger they must feel. I am sure it seems like part of the long standing assault on the lives of black men in which police brutality is often at the center.
However, in this case, I honestly don’t think that is what happened. Watching this tape, I see a number of tactical errors, ways in which the job might have been done better, but I don’t see brutality. I am not alone in that thinking. Just about every police officer I talk to – active and retired, of all races, across the political spectrum – is saying the same thing. What the tape shows is not a choke hold. It is a head lock. When a person resists arrest, as Garner was doing, we are taught to take them face down to the ground as quickly as possible in order to handcuff them. A head lock is one way that is done. A head lock looks like a choke hold because the officer’s arms are around the suspect’s neck, but it differs from a choke hold because there is no pressure to the wind pipe or the neck. We still await the final medical examiner’s report but preliminary findings indicate that there was no injury to the neck and a heart attack, not asphyxiation, was the cause of death.
Let’s not forget, we are talking about a man with many health problems. It is quite possible that the stress of the arrest was more than his body could take. But that doesn’t mean the police, who had no way of knowing his medical history, either intentionally or recklessly killed him.
Like everyone, I want a complete and thorough investigation into the cause of this tragedy. Like anyone, I can be wrong. This is just an opinion on a blog. But it is an informed opinion. I would ask activists to at least consider it.
What we need is radical, systemic change not the scapegoating of a few police officers who may well have done no wrong.

3 responses

  1. Julio Repetto

    In what world is contempt for police authorty a right? The congo? India?, what happened was a tragedy, but what needs to be changed isn’t policy, its the mentality of people that think that no matter how small or petty a violation or crime is, you CANNOT show contempt for police authority. Let the lawyers figure out the the legitimacy of a police officers actions. These individuals are sworn to abide by the rules and the law. Anarchy has no place in United States, you dont like it then leave.

    And you of all people being a former leader you should know better than to defend a career criminal (even if it was unlawful cigarette sales).

    I’D like to see you rant and rave to the IRS if they come knocking at your door, see how many people come to support you, try that incesant whining with the federal government.

    That idiotic “you have no right to arrest me” bullshit, Really??? Try that in the south or most other states for that matter. Wake up, as civilized people we need someone to exercise authority. Imagine what this city would be without it… I can because thats where we are headed with people that think like you.

    I hope you at least have the decency to keep this comment on your blog, people may need to see a different opinion.

    A proud retired NYC Police Officer.

    July 27, 2014 at 11:26 pm

    • Jerry

      Everyone has rights. A police Officer has rights to. If you committed a crime whether it be a felony or a violation, you will be arrested. A summons is in lieu of arrest.if and when you are arrested, when a Police Officer informs you that you are under arrest, it’s not up for discussion or bargaining. There is a place for that. It’s called a court of law. If you refuse a lawful order that your under arrest, it’s called resisting. Penal law section 205.30. Necessary force is allowed to effect a arrest. That’s a police officers right.this incident and hundreds more like it could be avoided if you just comply.

      July 28, 2014 at 12:22 am

  2. john h

    With all do respect to both sides need to view the reality of both Points; Eric Garner is dead. Former law enforcement see life similar to a Lawyer or entertainer. Ensconced in a lifestyle of thinking at least 60% or more people will never know.. If you class all “criminals” where loosey cig sales are no different from any other then one can claim resisting of arrest. Perhaps the force and process of apprehending an accountant who has embezzled should be different from that of a a violent murderer. My view is that if a nearly 400 lb man resist arrest, you would know. He would not be the only one injured.. but that is not the case. I know plenty of police that could have resolved that situation non violently. Why should a roving band of “law enforcement” officers be all of just one mindset but one race be used in the enforcement in a minority environment.. should all men law enforcement be used to enforce an all women environment, of course not. Nor should that be in this case. Not a single minority of Asain, Spanish, Black or women was there to view and asses the needs of the situation. The sensitivity needed cannot be ignored. If a group of cowboys only knows how to shot a gun he is of no use in at an academic debate. The position that a conflict that ends in death by force, by unnecessarily force is to condone brutality.. If there was less brutality there would be less tragedies.This has Tragedy written all over it. In the end the real tragedy (and especially NYPD) is to call this simply then tragic.. History that no punishment or the view of tragic is applied in the face of Ellenor Bumpers, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Eric Garnor is the same as saying the laws of mathmatics are wrong. Everything is tragic but nothing is brutal. Why does that Leopard have stripes?

    July 29, 2014 at 11:58 am

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