“I CAN’T breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” With increasing panic, Eric Garner left no doubt regarding his distress as he was wrestled to a Staten Island sidewalk by a phalanx of police officers. They paid no mind. Mr. Garner was choked to death.
Now a grand jury also has paid no mind to Mr. Garner’s distress, declining to lodge any charges against the police officer responsible for the brutal, quite possibly racially tinged and most certainly unnecessary death of a 43-year-old father of six. The victim’s supposed crime was selling untaxed cigarettes.
The announcement Wednesday that a grand jury decided not to indict the white officer who killed Mr. Garner, an African American, stunned many who were paying attention. In Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, at least conflicting witness accounts were cited as explanation for the decision not to prosecute. Mr. Garner’s death was clearly captured on video.
What it showed — what millions of people saw — was Mr. Garner being treated in a way that would be almost unimaginable for a white person. It was a hot summer day and Mr. Garner, unarmed, overweight and clearly outnumbered, was talking to a group of uniformed and plainclothes officers. He denied any wrongdoing and said he was tired of being harassed, but he was respectful, careful to address the policemen as “officer.” He didn’t move against the police; they moved against him. The chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo — a tactic banned by New York police regulations, which, the coroner said, caused the death — is clearly visible. As is the nonchalance exhibited by police and emergency responders who finally attended to the prone Mr. Garner.
Mr. Pantaleo said in a statement that he felt “very bad about the death of Mr. Garner” and that it “is never my intention to harm anyone.” A drunk driver may not set out to run someone over but, under the law, may nonetheless be held accountable. What exactly the grand jury was thinking — or what jurors were told by prosecutors — is shrouded by the secrecy of the grand jury process. Richmond County District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan Jr. said he would seek court permission to release information, and we hope he succeeds. The Justice Department has also opened a federal civil rights investigation.
It is clear — from this and other troubling cases in which black men have been killed in questionable encounters with police — that changes are in order in how police interact with communities and how these cases are investigated.
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