Faith, Love, Politics, and Social Justice

Police Reform

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.