It’s time to prosecute officers in the death of Eric Garner

Jonathan P Hicks | 8/7/2014, 3:05 p.m.
A growing chorus of activists, civil rights groups and others are calling for the prosecution of the New York City ...
Eric Garner, Innocent father choked to death by NYPD on July 17.

A growing chorus of activists, civil rights groups and others are calling for the prosecution of the New York City police officer who administered the chokehold that led to the death of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old African-American man who was pursued by police on Staten Island because they thought he was selling loose cigarettes. The calls are more than justified.

The New York City medical examiner’s office concluded that Garner died because of the chokehold, a practice that was banned years ago by the New York City Police Department. The medical examiner’s office ruled his death to be a homicide. So there is the combination of Garner being not only the object of excessive policing but also the victim of a practice that has been banned by the very department that uses it.

How is it possible that Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who applied the chokehold, has been charged with nothing? How is it possible that the group of officers who watched the chokehold being applied and did nothing to intervene have been held accountable for nothing so far?

For one thing, Pantaleo and his colleagues are members of the New York City Police Department, which is one of the most protected professions on Earth. He is represented by an intensely powerful union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which finds no wrong in anything its members do. Prosecuting a police officer is neither easy nor frequent.

In a fascinating perception of reality, Patrick Lynch, the head of the union, says it’s far from clear that Garner was actually placed in a chokehold. “It is outrageously insulting to all police officers to say we go out on the street to choke people of color,” said Lynch.

The problem with Lynch’s perspective is that the incident was captured nearly in its entirety on video recorded by a bystander. That video not only takes the wind out of Lynch’s sail but also thwarts the effort of the police union and similar defenders to discount what really happened to Garner on that Staten Island sidewalk.

And so, any scenario that would approach justice in the aftermath of Garner’s death would have to include Pantaleo being prosecuted—at the very least. It is a view that is gaining steam throughout the civil rights community.

“The police officers involved in this homicide must be held accountable for Mr. Garner’s death and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a statement. “The autopsy report has confirmed what New Yorkers and, indeed, people throughout the world saw on the video. Mr. Garner was choked to death by the police for no discernible reason.”

All one needs to consider is what would happen to the average New Yorker, let alone the average African-American or Latino New Yorker, found by a medical examiner to have caused the death of someone as the result of a homicide. It is unthinkable that any such New Yorker would not be arrested and prosecuted for the crime. The officer in the incident with Eric Garner deserves nothing less than that.