"Black lives matter." "I can't breathe." These are the words that have been chanted by protestors from New York to California. Demonstrations continue nationwide against the deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers.
On Wednesday a Staten Island grand jury decided not to prosecute police for the choking death of 43 year-old Eric Garner, an African American, in Staten Island last July. Police were attempting to arrest Garner for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes. A video surfaced showing several police officers pulling Garner to the ground, one using an illegal choke hold. Garner can be heard on the video saying he could not breathe as many as eleven times.
In August a medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide, saying "the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police." The examiner also noted that asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors in the death. Despite the video and the medical examiner's findings the grand jury, after a day of deliberations, decided that there was not enough evidence to charge a police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, with a crime.
The decision came on the same day as a memorial service for 12 year-old Tamir Rice was held in Cleveland, Ohio. More than 100 friends and family members gathered to remember the young African American boy who had been shot dead by police last month. Rice had been carrying a pellet gun when a bystander phoned 9-1-1. A Cleveland police car sped to the scene where Rice stood and shot him within two seconds, according to accounts.
For days demonstrations have been held from coast to coast to protest a Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury decision not to charge a police officer for the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown, who was unarmed. Many eyewitness accounts say that Brown had his hands raised when officer Darren Wilson, who has subsequently resigned from the Ferguson police force, gunned him down. Other witnesses say the already wounded Brown was charging Wilson, who was some distance away.
These deaths were a reminder for protestors that the criminal justice system doesn't treat blacks and whites equally. ProPublica analyzed FBI records and released alarming findings. The site reported, "The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police."
In reaction to the Garner decision, Wednesday night President Barack Obama said, "we are seeing too many instances where people do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly." He continued, "This is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law." Earlier this week the president announced the White House would ask for $75 million to make 50,000 body cameras available to police departments across the country.
Also Wednesday evening, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a federal civil rights investigation into the death of Eric Garner. He said that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the FBI, which had been monitoring the case closely, would conduct "a complete review of material gathered during the local investigation."
But it will take much more than a federal investigation to stop the tragic trend of young blacks dying at the hands of police. Local prosecutors work closely with police on cases and may not be independent enough to present evidence in a fair manner. The prosecutors in the Ferguson case at first presented their grand jury with the wrong law, which may have affected the outcome of that proceeding.
Most police officers bravely carry out their duties, often facing unpredictable and dangerous challenges. There needs to be a federal review of police arrest procedures in the field that will result in necessary reforms to stop wrongful deaths. Black lives do matter.