New York Times, Dec. 3, 2014
A Search for Justice in the Eric Garner Case
By The Editorial Board
The Staten Island grand jury must have seen the same video everyone else did: the one showing a group of New York City police officers swarming and killing an unarmed black man, Eric Garner.
Yet they have declined to bring charges against the plainclothes officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who is seen on the video girdling Mr. Garner’s neck in a chokehold, which the department bans, throwing him to the ground and pushing his head into the pavement.
The imbalance between Mr. Garner’s fate, on a Staten Island sidewalk in July, and his supposed infraction, selling loose cigarettes, is grotesque and outrageous. Though Mr. Garner’s death was officially ruled a homicide, it is not possible to pierce the secrecy of the grand jury, and thus to know why the jurors did not believe that criminal charges were appropriate.
What is clear is this was vicious policing and an innocent man is dead. Another conclusion is also obvious. Officer Pantaleo was stripped of his gun and badge; he needs to be stripped of his job. He used forbidden tactics to brutalize a citizen who was not acting belligerently, posed no risk of flight, brandished no weapon and was heavily outnumbered.
Any police department that tolerates such conduct, and whose officers are unable or unwilling to defuse such confrontations without killing people, needs to be reformed. And though the chance of a local criminal case is now foreclosed, the Justice Department is right to swiftly investigate what certainly seem like violations of Mr. Garner’s civil rights.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton responded quickly to Wednesday’s development, as they did in July, when anguish and anger flared. Mr. de Blasio went immediately to Staten Island to meet with elected officials, clergy members and other community leaders, and he issued a statement urging that New Yorkers outraged by the grand jury’s failure express themselves in peaceful ways.
Protests in New York City on Wednesday unavoidably echoed those in Ferguson, Mo., where an officer escaped indictment for fatally shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Protesters in both places have every right to deplore both outcomes, as well as the appalling frequency of fatal encounters between black men and the police.
New Yorkers, at least, have a mayor and Police Department that have not fully squandered their credibility with the public. Mr. de Blasio’s and Mr. Bratton’s vows to retrain the police force top to bottom in defusing conflict, to reduce unwarranted arrests and restore community trust, remain credible, if far from fulfilled.
Those who seek justice should remain hopeful, if skeptical and wary. Indeed, if not for a bystander with a cellphone, the police officers’ version of events would have been the prevailing one: that Mr. Garner “resisted arrest” and had to be subdued.
Mr. Garner, who was 43, and left a wife and six children, cannot speak for himself. But the video, at least, speaks for him. It’s a heartbreaking, damning exhibit, showing Mr. Garner’s final moments alive, and his final words: “I can’t breathe.”