The day the Staten Island grand jury predictably decided not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, I, infuriated by the outcome, engaged in the protest movement. By that I mean I stood near the action and later shared a joint with a few of my friends who had participated.
Though somewhat relaxed by the gentle cannabis flower, we energetically discussed Eric Garner and the larger issues at play. I must affirm that I agree with the protestors on most points. Police encounters are unnecessarily confrontational and often all too violent, with the poor and darker-hued disproportionately bearing the brutality. Police get away with extraordinary abuses regularly, and there aren’t adequate means to punish them. Obviously, there are much deeper issues involved in Mr. Garner’s unfortunate demise.
Where I depart from the protesting consensus is on a matter very specific and another very broad. Even though I believe he acted recklessly and condemnably, I don’t believe Officer Pantaleo intended to kill Mr. Garner. Having personally survived that same chokehold many times, I can tell you it’s rarely fatal, even when the person administering it is trying to kill you. This does not excuse Pantaleo’s response, but if facts matter, I feel it’s an important distinction to be made.
The other more important divergence of opinion is on how policing can be improved. From my discussion with the protestors and the countless articles and op-eds from left wing outlets, I am usually only able to glean what they find wrong with policing; there’s very little discussion on how to improve it. There also seems to be little recognition that there are important crimes and corruptions that we need the police to address. Protecting the community and keeping order are essential jobs that cannot be guided solely through criticism.
Following my night with the protestors, I met with a few retired NYPD officers to deliberate the verdict. And by that, I mean I spent half the day with my uncle and his friends, drinking to unsafe excess, while they aggressively advocated their opinions on this and a variety of other matters (For the uninitiated, retired police officers are extremely passionate in the espousal of ideas over cocktails — a fist fight nearly broke out when Rocket Man wasn’t in my uncle’s “top ten”).
About two hours (or eight beers) into our little gathering, grumblings about the verdict and the protests began to simmer until they became the bitter center of conversation. I did my best to express my views, but was dismissed affectionately as a “liberal bitch who doesn’t know shit.” I disagreed with most of what was said about the death of Eric Garner and policing in general. People should not be confronted violently for civil infractions; the broken windows theory is classist oppressive nonsense. But, I kept an open — if increasingly alcohol addled — mind.
One of the things I hadn’t considered was the fact that cops are trained to diffuse a situation quickly and effectively. They are often reprimanded for not subduing a suspect “fast and hard,” pursuant to the dual rationales of “containment” and “discouragement”. Whether prudent or not, officers are expected by their superiors to take complete control of a situation, and that means employing force to incapacitate noncompliant people. We can demonize Pantaleo, but he did what he was trained to do. Police officers justifiably fear instances of public resists of arrest as a direct threat to their safety, because it both extends the hostile situation and encourages others to participate.
Another point made over drinks was that the threat and demonstration of violence is necessary in enforcing the law. While I find this idea exceedingly cynical, it’s hard to deny. If there were not the threat of “kidnap and ransom” (a.k.a. in police parlance, “arrest and bail”), I would never pay tickets or drive at a reasonable speed. Violence is an essential crime-fighting tool and compels most people to fall in line.
Then I had an epiphany.
After a day of listening to these former enforcers of law casually threatening each other’s lives and insisting that no one could beat them up, I realized that these were men of violence. I use this term without attaching any moral judgment to it. I believe these kinds of people are sorely needed for specific tasks. It was comforting to know that they were responsible for hunting down murderers and rapists, but it was disconcerting to realize that these guys also issue tickets and resolve civil disputes.
Is it crazy to suggest that the same guy who runs into gunbattles in the morning shouldn’t be writing you a ticket for jay walking in the afternoon? Couldn’t these responsibilities be doled out to an unarmed, nonconfrontational unit, like an expanded traffic authority? If people are observed drinking in the street or jaywalking or selling untaxed cigarettes, they could be fined as they would be anyway, but without the threat of immediate arrest. Not only would this protect citizens from overzealous police but would also allow police to focus their energy and talents.
Making the same officers responsible for addressing shootings and loitering is not just ridiculous, it’s unfair to all involved. The loiterer, while technically in violation of the law, doesn’t deserve the same response as a shooter. Cops are humans who, like anyone else, have trouble compartmentalizing their emotions, fears, and responses.
Incidents like the death of Eric Garner are more than just heartbreaking tragedies; they are a source of hatred and distrust between communities and the people responsible for protecting them. This relationship needs to be fixed, and I think a less confrontational approach to addressing low-level criminality can be an important first step. Maybe we should all turn away from the talking heads and see what people are saying in the bar.