Grand Juries, Too Soft On Police Who Do Wrong?

In the United States, grand juries have suddenly become de rigueur but not in anything like a good way. To put it bluntly, too many white policemen are getting away with killing black men and Grand Juries are rubber-stamping the process.

Now before anyone climbs on their accusatory high moral horse suggesting this is biased and anti police, bad luck, I’ve beaten you to it. I’m already on it and riding at full gallop.

My high moral horse says the police are yet again culpable. The grand jury got it wrong and the facts speak for themselves.

This time it’s the New York Police under the microscope. Or, to be more accurate, captured on video.

The victim was Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American, father of six children and a grandfather of two. On July 17 this year, he allegedly committed the heinous crime of selling individual cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island. A group of New York City police officers approached and surrounded him. Why they did this is a question that was certainly never answered by the grand jury but it’s one that really does demand some kind of explanation in my view. What made this case radically different from all the others, was that cell phone footage was recorded by an onlooker, as the drama unfolded. And because the footage was shared online, the one eyewitness became millions more.

Garner was genuinely puzzled that the police officers seemed intent on arresting him for such a trifling offence. He was a big man, but at no point did he behave aggressively towards the officers or show them any disrespect. But maybe he wasn’t assuming a submissive posture, quickly enough. In any case one of the policemen, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, placed Garner in a chokehold, compressing his windpipe.

It should be pointed out that this maneuver was outlawed by the New York Police Department 20 years ago.

Again there appeared to be no reason for the police to take such an aggressive approach to Eric Garner. It was not warranted by his alleged crime or behavior. The videotape shows Garner complaining repeatedly that he’s having trouble breathing. The police officers wrestle him to the sidewalk and Eric Garner dies. Emergency paramedics are summoned but the police officers, who were present, are clearly shown making no attempt at all to resuscitate Eric Garner.

Again let’s be clear on the facts. The coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. He suffered from asthma, and Pantaleo’s chokehold killed him. The Staten Island prosecutor presented evidence against Officer Pantaleo to a grand jury. The other officers involved in the incident were given immunity in exchange for their testimony. But the grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on any charge.

An American journalist, Eugene Robinson wrote what I consider to be an insightful piece, in the Washington Post, about the tragic death of Eric Garner. He called it a depressing episode in the reality series, No Country For Black Men. In his view, equal justice before the law in the United States is just a cruel joke.

Robinson wrote that African American men are being taught a lesson on how society values, or devalues their lives. He says the Garner case raises two very important issues: One involves what he called the excessive license given to police to do whatever they must to guarantee that the streets are safe. The second, poses the question, has the pendulum now swung too far in the law and order direction at the expense of justice, liberty and equality?

Robinson believes the Garner case is part of what he called the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing. If you want to reduce serious crime, you crack down on minor, nuisance offending like selling loose cigarettes on a street corner. He draws a parallel between the Garner case in New York and the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In both cases, Robinson says, the grand juries examined the evidence and decided there was no probable cause, a very low standard of proof, that the police officers involved did anything wrong. He asks, would the results have been the same if the victims were white?

In yet another twist in the Garner case, the only person to be indicted, who was involved in the Eric Garner killing, was the eyewitness, Ramsay Orta, who recorded the Garner incident on his mobile phone. He faced charges relating to weapons offences after a bust by an undercover policeman. Police allege Orta slipped a handgun into the waistband of a teen accomplice outside a New York hotel. Orta claims he was falsely charged in retaliation for the Garner filming. His case was also examined by a grand jury, which had no trouble at all in indicting him.

I think all of us have an obligation to be extremely careful in playing the race card. It’s easy and convenient and can be used to either confuse or silence justified criticism especially when there are two sides to every story. But in the case of Michael Brown and Eric Garner it happens to be true. Sadly, the category that defines America’s most feared and loathed citizens would appear to be young, black men. Ironically, Eric Garner didn’t even fit this profile stereotype. He was a middle-aged, overweight asthmatic man. He was engaged in an activity that warranted nothing more than being told to move along.

I hate to say it, but in my view, his capital offense, in the minds of those police officers who confronted him, was to be born black.

Ferguson’s Shame

There’s been a disturbing development in the case involving an 18-year-old black American shot dead by a policeman in Missouri. This case was the catalyst for days of violent protest in Ferguson, a predominantly black suburb in St Louis. It also resulted in a nationwide debate about the relationship between young black Americans and the police. Two independent witnesses have come forward to give their version of events.

CNN released cell phone footage revealing the reactions of two construction workers who were in the vicinity at the time the incident happened. It is controversial and damning of the police. The footage shows the young black man’s hands were raised before he was killed. It also supports other eyewitness accounts that the 18-year-old was retreating or surrendering. The video shows one of the construction workers raising his hands immediately after the shooting calling out to the police officer that the young man had his hands up. The construction worker said in an interview with CNN that the policeman, didn’t tell the young black man to lie down on the ground, he just kept shooting. The eyewitness heard one gunshot and then another about 30 seconds later. When he saw the young man with a fatal head wound he again called out to the police officer, his hands were in surrender and the police officer did not need to shoot.

This account of course completely contradicts the police version of events. The police version has this officer shooting the young man in self-defense. There was a struggle and the young man attacked the police officer prompting him to draw his weapon and use lethal force. But these two construction workers  were 50 feet away when the cop opened fire. That makes them eyewitnesses to what happened. They said the young black man didn’t confront the police officer. In fact he was running away from the police car. The officer was chasing him and the young man raised his hands in the air. The two construction workers were not locals. They were employed by a business from Jefferson County south of Missouri. The lawyer representing the family of the young man who was shot said these two eyewitnesses came forward of their own account. He also said he thought this new video was a deal breaker in the case. It wasn’t the fact that these construction workers were white and were from out of town. It was a deal breaker because it showed their reactions immediately after what they had just witnessed. It was the best evidence you could have other than a video of the actual shooting.

The St Louis County Prosecutor is saying very little about this new development as you might expect. These two construction workers were among a number of witnesses interviewed by the authorities and they were just part of the ongoing investigation. To put all of this in context, a local Grand Jury is considering all of the evidence being gathered for potential criminal charges against the police officer responsible for shooting the young man. The general consensus amongst the local legal fraternity is that the video will be admissible evidence in any future court case against the police officer.

But the criminal investigation into the shooting is not the only inquiry happening in Ferguson. The White House has begun a Federal investigation into whether the Ferguson police systematically violated the civil rights of people living in the city. Make that black people living in the city. The Department of Justice is also working with the St Louis County force, which was heavily criticized for its militarized response and over reaction to the protests that followed the shooting. In other words the Justice Department thinks the county force needs to reform the way it handles demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience.  Some of the law enforcement statistics strongly suggest there is a real problem with how black people are treated by police in Ferguson. According to figures published by the Missouri Attorney General, the ratio of black motorists stopped by police compared to white motorists is seven to one. Police are 12 times more likely to conduct a search of a black motorist’s car than a white motorist.

What is even more alarming is that 13 percent of Ferguson’s police officers have faced allegations of using excessive force in discharging their duties. This compares extremely unfavorably to the national average, which is half of one percent. One thing is certain. We have not heard the end of this.