NYPD Officer Not Indicted after Choke Hold Killing

Today is a very difficult day to be a New Yorker and believe that the system in this cosmopolitan and progressive oasis works. A Staten Island grand jury has declined to indict a white police officer who used a choke hold on a black citizen who died as a result. The coroner’s report read “homicide,” and the whole affair was captured on video. If the grand jury is correct, that no crime was committed, then the law needs to be changed. More likely, though, the grand jury system is at the heart of the problem and it needs to go.

NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was one of six officers who stopped Eric Garner on a sidewalk for selling “loosies,” single cigarettes. This is legal only if the seller collects the appropriate taxes, and of course, a guy making a living doing this isn’t going to bother with the tax. As the video shows, Mr. Garner was unarmed, and he did not initiate physical contact with the police. He wasn’t threatening, nor was his crime very big. He was simply tired of police harassment and said so.

On the video, Officer Pantaleo grabs Mr. Garner from behind by putting his forearm across Mr. Garner’s neck and wrestled him (assisted by other officers) to the ground. Moments later, while Officer Pantaleo is kneeling on the deceased’s back, Mr. Garner is clearly heard saying repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” Rather than address his physical needs, the video clearly shows the police officers waiting for emergency medical technicians, despite the fact that NYPD personnel are trained in CPR. Mr. Garner died in the ambulance.

The decision of the grand jury has flabbergasted legal experts. Professor Ekow Yankah at Cardozo School of Law, told the Associated Press it was “hard to understand” why there was no indictment. James Cohen of Fordham University Law School offered, “Logic doesn’t play a role in this process.” Staten Island elects Republicans, a small island of conservative values in the leftish City of New York. Indeed, Staten Island is more like suburban New Jersey than like the other four boroughs of the city. It takes no great leap of faith to believe the largely white population of the island resulted in a largely white pro-police grand jury.

The grand jury proceedings are closed to the public, and the only legal professional in the room is the prosecutor who is presenting the case. For this reason, the old adage has it that a grand jury can indict a ham sandwich if the prosecutor wants it indicted. Out of 142,000 federal grand juries last year, exactly 11 of them failed to produce an indictment. The standard is that low and the playing field that slanted.

As the world saw in Ferguson, Missouri, though, if a prosecutor doesn’t want an indictment, the game can be played to avoid one. In Staten Island, this is clearly what has happened, although this grand jury didn’t leak the way the one in Missouri did so there is less evidence. One can deduce, however, that the relationship of the prosecutor with the police department (a symbiotic partnership) creates a situation in which police officers rarely face trial for their actions.

Because the District Attorney is an elective office in New York State, it is also in the interests of the DA to put politically charged cases in front of a grand jury so as to avoid responsibility one way or the other. The DA does have the right to bring charges without the grand jury process, but that would interfere with re-election by either alienating the police or the minority communities.

Britain established the grand jury system centuries ago, and in England, the grand jury was abolished in the 1940s. Experience showed that magistrates who actually know the law do a better job of deciding what cases go to trial. Experience in America of late suggests that change is in order.

The simple truth is that the police no longer enjoy the support of many communities because of this pursuit of petty crime as part of the misguided “broken window” approach to policing. When officers don’t stand trial when citizens die in custody or in the process of being arrested, the legal system itself falls into disrepute. Once that happens, civil unrest on a large scale becomes a genuine possibility.

Eric Garner is dead because of Officer Pantaleo’s excessive use of force and the NYPD’s stupid policy of targeting petty crime, misallocating manpower. He died because he didn’t pay the tax on the tobacco he sold. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are on Mount Rushmore because they didn’t want to pay taxes on tobacco either.