Last month a black man died at the hands of New York City Police. In a world where police brutality, racial profiling and excessive force is normalized, this event is sadly unremarkable. It is unique though, because, among all police-civilian interactions that ended badly, this one was caught on tape. Eyewitness videos show Eric Garner arguing with police, who grab him, bring him the ground and choke him as he protests "I can't breathe, I can't breathe." Even then, the story may not have crossed the threshold between everyday tragedy and uncommon outrage if it weren't for the press conference held by leaders of two NY Police Unions earlier this week. The video is rare chance to witness the candid hypocrisy of the law enforcement establishment. A masterful 30 minute act of deflection and delusion. Yet another atrocity caught on tape.
Rewriting the story of Garner's Death
Throughout the press conference, police union presidents Pat Lynch and Edward Mullins show that this was not merely an isolated incident, it is the inevitable outcome of a deeply entrenched mindset within law enforcement that cannot begin to understand the people it is charged with protecting. Lynch and Mullins are the leaders of the largest Police labor unions in New York City and in the country. They both influence and reflect the views of the police force. It is as though they are on the wrong end of a two-way mirror, utterly unable to see the people on the other side.
In the wake of Garner's death, New York City law enforcement has had the heat turned back on itself in a chorus of public outcry. The thick irony of their discomfort in being subjected to the same scrutiny that they apply to others is first amusing, then infuriating. This is the police force that has all but codified radial profiling, that chronically invokes excessive force and that provokes and intimidates to conjure up infractions that aren't otherwise happening. It's like they are saying "how dare you stereotype us while we stereotype you!" Throughout the video, Lynch and Mullins are completely deadpan, oblivious of their contradictions.
There is a widespread lack of respect for law enforcement. Lynch blames the lack of respect on "the slanderous, insulting" portrayal of police officers, with no awareness of where the disrespect comes from. If a man rapes a woman, and then you call him a rapist, he may be insulted, but that doesn't make you wrong. The police have a right to their feelings but a man is dead, and we need to prevent further unnecessary loss of life whether doing so insults a few cops or not. Respect is not unconditional, there are standards. The police are insulted, he's dead.
Garner had 30 previous arrests before his death. Mullins mentions this statistic as evidence of Garner's insidious criminality. But how many of those arrests were actually merited? If a police officer was ticketed or arrested every time he ran a red light or exceeded the speed limit unnecessarily or illegally parked while on a coffee run, or, god forbid, used excessive force, it's not hard to imagine that they would have 30 infractions too. In this system, arrests do not necessarily correlate with criminality.
If the so-called "broken window" policing strategy worked, Garner's numerous prior arrests should have affected some positive change. He should have somehow ceased to be a "menace" to society. Were the streets safer because of his 30 arrests? Are residents safer now that he is dead? I don't see how.
Regardless of his record, Garner was arrested that day for the crime of illegally selling untaxed (aka "loose") cigarettes, a minor non-violent crime. Inconveniently for the police, Garner had no cigarettes on him at the time. Inconveniently for the police, the entire interaction was recorded, so they were unable to claim that Garner reached for an officer's gun, or otherwise provoked lethal action. Conveniently for the police, they are shielded by a powerful system that will doggedly protect them whether on not they're right.
Throughout the video, Lynch adamantly argues against the use of the word "chokehold" in describing the physical force that the arresting officer used on Garner. Call it what you like, the fact that Garner died as a result of the physical force is the main point, not the semantics of how it is described: "chokehold" or "neck crushing?"; "enhanced interrogation" or "torture?"; "making love" or "sex?"; tom-AY-to tom-AH-to, it tastes the same either way.
Law enforcement does not see death via excessive force as murder, they are utterly dissociated from the reality of the situation. A major clue is in the impersonal passive language from the press conference as Lynch and Mullins navigate the uncomfortable topic at hand: "unfortunately...Mr. Garner died that day..." and "....the loss of life." Later, Mullins quibbles over the disproportionate public outcry between Garner's death and a situation of a doctor "failing to save someone." Equating those two scenarios is a particularly dexterous mental leap. Trying but failing to prevent death is utterly incomparable to taking positive action to make it happen. It is why people do not get as angry when someone is hit by lightning as when someone is gunned down in the street.
If the NYPD had it their way, they would put Officer Pantaleo on paid leave and wait out the negative media attention (they wouldn't have to wait long for the next horror, as Ferguson shows). Mullins complains about calls for "federal investigations [and] outside people to come in...." But what's so bad about that? If the police's claims are true and there was no wrongdoing, then an unbiased external investigation should exonerate Pantaleo. Law enforcement's unwillingness to accept 3rd party review is a reminder that they value muscle over truth.
If you're feeling cynical, you might get a couple of good laughs out of this video. You might even replay the part where Lynch's heavy accent becomes so strong that he seems to say "New York shitty police." But overall the press conference is one long assault on logic and humanity, and it's even more depressing when it is taken in the context of a much bigger, deeply flawed system.
Above the Law
Much of the tension between civilians and the NYPD comes from aggressive policing practices that encourage police officers to issue consistently high volumes of citations regardless of need. New York state law prohibits the use of quotas for the issuing of tickets but, with the help of further semantic wordsmithing, it has become a regular practice under the term "goals." The quotas have yet another nickname- "250s" -as in, 250 citations per officer per month, for every officer, in every month. The arrests are not merit-based, but market based and the demand for write-ups is insatiably high.
The NYPD is happy to take credit for the significant improvement in safety and quality of life in the past few decades. If indeed New York City is safer, then there should be fewer arrests, not more. According to a CBS News report,"The NYPD has made almost 400,000 arrests in the past year, which is up from 268,000 arrests in 1995, when there were three times as many murders in the city." A combination of greater safety and greater demand for the issuing of tickets has a natural progression. First, police target violent criminals, then they crack down on trivial offenders, then whoever happens to be walking by at the right moment. That is how we arrive at a situation where a man like Garner has 30 arrests and is placed under arrest for potentially selling illegal cigarettes.
There are plenty of conscientious police officers who know that racial profiling, quotas and aggravated arrest are wrong. But they are powerless to act against it for fear that they will lose their job and compromise their future. The NYPD is one big fraternity where the hazing never ends. Each time an officer rises in the ranks, they face an ever-more elusive position that they must work for. There is no rear-view to the system that they left behind. There is never change, there is only up and the only way to go up is to toe the line.
It doesn't have to be so hard for police to do what is right. According to a video published by The Nation in 2012, "the NYPD is one of New York City's only agencies to operate without independent oversight." There is proposed legislation to create an independent Inspector General's office but it has not passed. When an institution is unchecked, and especially when its underlying purpose is a positive service to others, there is a risk of corruption. Those in control fear that exposing even minor ills will detract from the larger good. And so the cancer grows, unchecked.
This phenomenon is not at all limited to the NYPD. New York's Riker's Island has been overrun with an epidemic of severe prisoner abuse and psychological mistreatment. Penn State's reputable football program was put at risk by a rogue coach who sexually abused children. The entire institution of Catholicism was also undermined by child sexual abuse. These institutions could act quickly to resolve their problem, but they often chose to ignore, or even perpetuate it by actively covering it up. In this way, the "bad eggs" are scrambled in with the good until the unpleasant exception becomes the rule.
Football coaches, clergymen and yes, policemen, often deserve our respect. But we reserve the right to revoke it if the person or the institution's actions are less than unrespectable. Imagine the absurdity of seeing a politician saying "I've gotten to this position for a reason, so just trust me and don't criticize me." Being exposed to public scrutiny is part of the job of being a public servant, and the more power a person gets, the more we deserve to qualify our respect with actual standards.
There is little incentive for those in power to change a system because, even if it is flawed, they have already figure out how to make it work for them. In the same way that successful politicians lack motivation to enact campaign finance reform, NYPD leadership has no strong reason to change the status quo.
If the NYPD wants the respect of the citizens it is charged with protecting, it must earn it. They can start by acknowledging the possibility of wrongdoing and providing good-faith support to investigations. They can eliminate the illegal practice of quotas. They can work to stamp out racial profiling. They can accept or even demand a system of checks and balances that will bring oversight to the police force. Efforts like these will help restore the respect for the uniform and will help us build a system where law enforcement protects, rather than victimizes its people.
Are you thinking "that's horrible but what can I do about it?"
Sign the Petition requesting President Obama to Enact New Federal Laws to Protect Citizens from Police Violence and Misconduct: http://www.change.org/protect-against-police-violence
Non New Yorkers, email your state representatives and encourage them to support legislation that will strengthen oversight of police departments, eliminate use of quotas and protect citizens against racial profiling.
New Yorkers, email your state representative and encourage them to support the following proposed legislation:
- A05372- Prohibits state agencies from or suggesting any enforcement quotas
- A03918-Prohibits discrimination in promotion of police officers who fail to meet their employer's traffic ticket quota
- A01817/S00596- Establishes discrimination against employers for failure to meet quotas as a class A misdemeanor
- A01016/S02628- Increases access to law enforcement officers' personnel records if they are involved in a shooting or other misconduct
- A02803/S01043- Increases jurisdiction of attorney general to investigate and prosecute police misconduct
- A04386- Allows for indefinite suspension of NYPD who use excessive force or otherwise show incompetence/misconduct
- A05240/S07641- Requires drug/substance testing for officers who have discharged their weapon in the line of duty
- A03495/S00156- "Relates to transfers or appointments of police officers to competitive or non-competitive positions."