The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Eric Garner case is not an argument against body cameras

Some emotions are better conveyed in images than in words. (AP/Seth Wenig)
Placeholder while article actions load

This post has been corrected to accurately describe the beating of Rodney King by police officers in 1991. He was not killed in the beating.

If the purpose of President Obama's request for $75 million to help local police departments buy body cameras is to make it easier to prosecute officers who use excessive force against civilians, then the grand jury's decision not to indict an officer in the death of Eric Garner on Wednesday suggests that the proposal might not achieve that goal.

Video recorded on Staten Island in July shows Officer Daniel Pantaleo executing an apparent chokehold on Garner. Pantaleo told the grand jury that he did not intend to harm Garner.

Ever since a jury acquitted the policemen who beat Rodney King in 1991 in spite of footage of the beating, it's been clear that even video evidence isn't necessarily proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal proceeding against an officer. They can't always show what officers are thinking and feeling, the Supreme Court has ruled that juries must generally respect police officers' judgment about when force is necessary to protect themselves and the public. Body cameras wouldn't change that.

That said, if the goal is not simply to prosecute officers, but to help them do their job better and to improve their relationships with civilians, then cameras just might help.

The preliminary evidence is promising, if still incomplete. One study in Rialto, Calif. found that officers who did not wear body cameras were twice as likely to use force as those who were. Initial results from another study in Mesa, Ariz., suggest that 65 percent fewer complaints were filed against officers who wore cameras.

There are still real questions about how body cameras should be used and what to do with all of the data they generate. The hardware won't remove the decades of mistrust that have accumulated between the police and the people they're sworn to protect. Also, the cameras are unaffordable for many local police departments.

Yet $75 million is a rounding error in the federal budget. If police chiefs are interested in purchasing cameras, it would be the least Congress could do to chip in.

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter incorrectly stated that Rodney King died of a police beating. King's injuries in the 1991 incident were not fatal, and he died in 2012. This version has been corrected.

Welcome to Wonkbook. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. Follow Wonkblog on Twitter and Facebook.

What's in Wonkbook: 1) No charges in Garner's death 2) Opinions: Free trade, measles, water, the torture report, U.VA. 3) G.O.P. immigration suit 4) Takata recall standoff 5) Prescription painkillers, and more

Number of the day: $2.9 trillion. That's how much Americans spent on health care in 2013 -- almost the same amount as the previous year. Spending increased by only 3.6 percent, the smallest increase since 1960. The question is whether that leveling off is due to the weak economy or more efficient treatment. Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Chart of the day:

The New York Police Department began instructing its officers never to use chokeholds in 1993. Still, officers use chokeholds hundreds of times every year -- and that's only counting the incidents in which the department received a formal complaint. Roberto Ferdman in The Washington Post.

1. 'I can't breathe': No charges in New York police case

Pantaleo will not be indicted. He was one of a group of officers arresting Garner for selling loose cigarettes on the sidewalk. He was suspended during the grand jury proceeding, and it is not clear if he will be reinstated. J. David Goodman and Al Baker in The New York Times.

The officer told the grand jury he did not realize Garner was in danger. Pantaleo narrated the videos in front of the grand jury, explaining his thoughts and actions. He said that when he heard Garner saying, "I can't breathe," he tried to let go, but couldn't do so fast enough. Goodman and Michael Wilson in The New York Times.

Protesters in New York voiced their frustration peacefully. "Daniel Skelton, 40, ripped cigarettes from a pack of Newports, flung them to the ground and stomped on them. 'Black lives,' he shouted." Vivian Yee in The New York Times.

The Department of Justice is opening a civil-rights probe. Legal experts suggested that because of the video evidence, the case could be easier for federal prosecutors than either the Michael Brown or the Trayvon Martin cases, neither of which are expected to result in federal charges. Timothy M. Phelps in the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, violent crime in New York is becoming rare. City officials announced another decline in crime statistics on Wednesday. Only 290 people have been killed in New York so far this year, which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. The decline in crime has continued as the police department has moved away from marijuana arrests and stop and frisks. The city is also beginning a pilot program to equip some officers with body cameras. Goodman in The New York Times.

BLOW: Michael Brown's and Eric Garner's death were not isolated cases. This society has denied people of color the opportunities of whites for generations. There were plenty of factors other than Garner's skin that led to his death, but focusing on any one of them in particular ignores the largest and most important. The New York Times.

SIEGEL: The police made no effort to help Garner. As he lay dying on the sidewalk, they ignored his distress, eventually manhandling him onto a gurney. His life might have been saved in those few minutes. New York Daily News.

The killing shows the police department still needs to change.  Pantaleo "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." The New York Times.

2. Top opinions

Free trade forces governments to pay corporations billions in damages. International agreements allow businesses to sue the countries where they operate for protecting the public interest, if the policies mean losses for investors. Manuel Pérez-Rocha in The New York Times.

Is it worth it for the United States to protect free trade? The cost of a global economy is the military force the United States must exert to protect shipping lanes. With the boom in shale gas, that bargain might no longer make sense: the United States can produce everything it needs domestically. Liam Denning reviews Peter Zeihan's The Accidental Superpower in The Wall Street Journal.

The cheapest way to save water is often to protect forests. Metropolises around the world pay to build maintain the infrastructure that delivers water to their residents. As the population grows, a cheaper way to increase the supply of water will be to shield rivers and lakes from pollution through planting forests or paying farmers to plant different crops. Giulio Boccaletti at Project Syndicate.

Measles is coming to a town near you. Parents' refusal to vaccinate their children raises the question of whether vaccines should be required for everyone, regardless of religious or personal objections. Haider Javed Warraich in The Wall Street Journal.

ROGIN & LAKE: The Senate's torture investigation will be released shortly. After a long negotiation, Sen. Dianne Feinstein was able to retain some important information in the report that the CIA thought should remain classified. The question now will be how to prevent the abuses described in the report from happening again. Bloomberg.

We can't leave sexual assault on campus to the police. Whether or not there is a criminal prosecution, schools have a responsibility to hep victims of sexual violence in small but crucial ways -- like rearranging schedules or moving students to different dormitories. Alexandra Brodsky and Elizabeth Deutsch in Politico.

SULLIVAN: The federal government issues reactionary guidelines on circumcision. There's no evidence that circumcision reduces HIV transmission in gay sex, which accounts for most new infections in the United States. The Dish.

3. States file immigration suit

Texas, Kansas and 16 other states sue the Obama administration over deportations. They argue the president's executive order placed fiscal burdens on local governments. David Montgomery and Julia Preston in The New York Times.

Standing remains a legal obstacle for the states. The plaintiffs will have to show convincingly and concretely how the order harms them in order for a court to intervene. Nathan Koppel and Laura Meckler in The Wall Street Journal

Obama's action is without precedent in scope. The White House's claim that 1.5 million immigrants were granted temporary immunity from deportation under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush is an exaggeration. At the time, federal officials thought their order extended to about 100,000 people. The Washington Post.

4. A standoff over Takata's airbags

Takata rejects a federal request to recall its airbags nationwide. Regulators say defective airbags supplied by Takata are a danger to passengers. Meanwhile, Honda is taking action on its own, extending a previous recall across the country. A national recall could apply to several million cars. Ashley Halsey III in The Washington Post.

Honda's national recall has no immediate effect. There aren't enough airbags in stock to replace all of the ones that could be defective, so Honda, like other automakers, will continue to prioritize customers who live in humid regions. Humidity seems to make the airbags more likely to malfunction, though the cause is still unclear. Todd Spangler in the Detroit Free Press.

Takata says that a national recall is excessive. The company told the feds that it had tested more than 1,000 airbags from cars in arid regions, and not one had ruptured. Associated Press.

5. In case you missed it

Reports of sexual assault in the military increased 8 percent last year. It's possible that service members are placing more trust in the military's procedures for handling these cases, and that victims are more likely to come forward as a result. Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post.

Fewer people are dying of prescription drug overdoses. The slight decrease is the first in a decade of epidemic painkiller abuse. Christopher Ingraham in The Washington Post.