Yesterday, a New York City officials announced that a grand jury had cleared the police officer captured on video putting Staten Island resident Eric Garner in a choke hold. Garner later died of a heart attack. The announcement sparked large protests throughout the city, and smaller protests across the country.

A few varied thoughts on the incident:

Body cameras

My Washington Post colleague Nia-Malika Henderson wrote yesterday that the failure to indict the officer despite what appears to be some pretty damning video evidence strikes a blow against the use of body cameras. While I agree with Henderson that President Obama’s proposed police reforms don’t go nearly far enough, I don’t think her conclusion about body cameras is right. Body cameras are a form of government transparency. Though there is some evidence that they motivate better behavior in both cops and citizens, I don’t think most people who advocates their use would argue that they’d be a panacea in thwarting police misconduct. Instead, like other transparency policies, their primary function is to expose any problems that may exist. The video footage of the Eric Garner arrest has done exactly that.

  • The video showed that this cop used a level of force that to many people seems excessive.
  • The video provided a neutral narrative of the arrest. If not for the video, we would be left only with the police account of the arrest versus the account of a few witnesses. And remember, the officers’ first report on the confrontation didn’t mention the chokehold.
  • The video convinced people who might have otherwise sided with the police. Mediaite editor Andrew Kirell noted on Twitter yesterday that he was pleased to see so many conservatives and right-leaning people in his feed expressing outrage over the lack of an indictment.
  • The video demonstrated that the system is broken. The lack of an indictment stunned many people because the video seemed so compelling. Because the grand jury nevertheless declined to indict, those people must now grapple with the fact that either the grand jury system is broken or New York’s use of force laws allow for what we saw in that video. That is, either the grand jury improperly applied the law to clear a cop, or the law itself is terribly flawed.

A number of people on social media have made the point that for black people, it was already obvious that the system is broken. But if you’re trying to build a coalition to change the laws, you need to convince the people who don’t already agree with you that the laws need changing. Yesterday’s protests were not only huge, they were diverse. That is, they included a lot of white people — people for whom the problems in the criminal justice system weren’t already obvious. Eric Garner’s death has convinced a lot of people that the laws need to be changed. It’s safe to say that the video is a big reason why.

Bad cops on the job

The cop in question in the Garner case, Daniel Pantaleo, had twice been sued for violating a citizen’s constitutional rights. One lawsuit accused Pantaleo and other officers of illegally pulling over a car, falsely claiming to have found crack and forcing the car’s occupants to strip nude, squat, and cough. The city settled that lawsuit for $30,000. The other lawsuit is still pending. It accuses Pantaleo of misstating facts about a marijuana arrest in a case where there charges were later dismissed.

This problem goes well beyond New York City. Abusive cops are notoriously difficult to fire. Even when they can be fired or forced to resign, they often quickly find work in another police agency. We give police officers extraordinary powers. They’re authorized to detain, arrest, injure, and kill. If anything, the laws and internal policies governing how cops are hired and retained should err on the side of exclusion. Instead, the laws are explicitly designed to make it difficult to exclude someone who may be mentally unfit for the job, and even more difficult to dismiss someone once they’ve actually demonstrated that they shouldn’t be trusted with a badge and a gun.

On the same day the New York grand jury cleared Garner, for example, we learned this, via the Guardian:

A police officer who shot a 12-year-old dead in a Cleveland park late last month had been judged unfit for police service two years earlier by a small suburban force where he worked for six months, according to records released on Wednesday.
Officer Timothy Loehmann, who killed Tamir Rice on 22 November, was specifically faulted for breaking down emotionally while handling a live gun. During a training episode at a firing range, Loehmann was reported to be “distracted and weepy” and incommunicative. “His handgun performance was dismal,” deputy chief Jim Polak of the Independence, Ohio, police department wrote in an internal memo.
The memo concludes with a recommendation that Loehmann be “released from the employment of the City of Independence”. Less than a week later, on 3 December 2012, Loehmann resigned.
In March of this year, Loehmann was hired by the Cleveland police department. It is unclear whether the department had seen the Independence memo at the time of Loehmann’s hiring.
“I have not received any instruction about it, and I have not received the file” from Independence, said Sgt Ali Pillow, a Cleveland police spokesman. He said the Cleveland department had not commented on whether it had seen the memo from Independence before Loehmann was hired.

So the Cleveland Police Department either didn’t know that a man they hired to carry a loaded gun had been deemed unfit for policing, or they didn’t bother to check. I’m not sure which is worse.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that the Cleveland police department systematically engages in excessive use of force against civilians, and that a court-appointed monitor will now oversee implementation of reforms. (Reuters)

The roster of bad cops who manage to stay on the job after a litany of abuses would almost be comical if it weren’t for the fact that their behavior hurts and sometimes kills people. Most of the laws governing the procedures for firing bad cops are local, but it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for the federal government to start a national database of cops who have been fired or who resigned while under investigation. An easily searchable database would at least make it more difficult for a police agency to claim ignorance about a new cops’ prior history — and make them more liable if that cop abuses his authority again.

Even seemingly innocuous laws are enforced with violence

Sen. Rand Paul took some heat this week for pointing out that Eric Garner was essentially executed for selling untaxed cigarettes. I’m not sure why this is a controversial thing to say (especially since Paul also explicitly said the video itself was “horrifying”). Every law, no matter how seemingly innocuous, is enforced with the threat of violence: If you fail to follow it, the state is saying it reserves the right to use violence to force you to comply and/or force you to submit to a penalty for violating the law. Every law passed also creates more opportunities for interaction with police officers, the people entrusted to use the violence necessary to enforce the laws. How a proposed law will be enforced, and potentially abused, ought to be considered in addition to the content of the law itself.

For example, primary seat belt laws give cops another way to racially profile black motorists. It’s another excuse for a pretext stop. Earlier this year, I put up a post about the harrowing video showing South Carolina state trooper Sean Groubert firing a barrage of bullets at motorist Lavar Jones as Jones reached for his driver’s license. Groubert had pulled Jones over because Jones wasn’t wearing his seat belt. It isn’t the first time a seat belt stop has escalated to violence. In September, an Indiana family filed a lawsuit stemming from a seat belt stop that resulted in police smashing a car window and tasering one of the occupants. A Georgia family has filed a lawsuit after a traffic stop last January that ended with a teen being pulled from the car and handcuffed at gunpoint. He was cited only for not waring a seat belt. A seat belt stop in Florida last year led to an officer inadvertently running over and killing 38-year-old Marlon Brown.

Now, I doubt that New York city council anticipated that failure to comply with this particular law would result in a man’s death, any more than legislators in Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, or Florida anticipated that seat belt enforcement could end in tasings, shootings, or arrests. But you enforce the laws with the police institutions you have, not the police institutions you want. Low-level offenses are a tool police sometimes use to do sweeps for outstanding warrants, or as part of a “broken windows” strategy of law enforcement. These are tactics overwhelmingly deployed on low-income and minority communities.

Moreover, the grand jury in New York determined that Officer Pantaleo acted in accordance with city and state law in the way he apprehended Eric Garner. The same policymakers that passed the tax are also responsible for the laws that govern the way in which that tax is enforced. They could change either policy tomorrow if they wanted. For example, they could require police to make attempts at deescalation before applying force. Or they could tell cops to put a low priority on arresting people who sell loose cigarettes. If they end up changing neither, then yes, they’ll be saying that death is an acceptable outcome for someone who sells loose, untaxed cigarettes. That’s why Garner was apprehended. If Pantaleo didn’t violate law or policy, and there’s nothing wrong with the law or policy, I don’t know how you get around that conclusion.

It may be that the lives saved by seat belt laws and cigarette taxes are well worth the added police-citizen interactions needed to enforce them, and any incidents that might occur during those interactions. But I don’t see the harm in pointing out that these laws will result in more such interactions, or in pointing out which communities are likely to be on the receiving end of most of them.