Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Another Grand Jury Resolves Little

First it was Ferguson, Missouri.

Second, now, is Staten Island; the whitest, most politically and socially conservative borough in the City of New York.

In each place, the result is the same:  a grand jury no-bill of a white officer accused of murdering a black man.

Staten Island's grand jury reached its decision today, and New York officials are feverishly pleading with the city's sizable black community to refrain from reacting with violence.  Eric Garner, the deceased, was being questioned by the NYPD this past summer because he was suspected of selling loose cigarettes.  Their confrontation somehow escalated to the point where one of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, used a chokehold* to restrain him.

NYPD official procedures forbid the use of chokeholds, a fact which helped many New Yorkers who are skeptical of their police department hope for an indictment.  But for some reason, the grand jury heard enough testimony exonerating Pantaleo to overcome the officer's unauthorized tactic.  At one point during Pantaleo's use of the chokehold, Garner gasped that he couldn't breathe, and it is believed that those were his last words.

Pantaleo isn't off the hook entirely - his employer, the NYPD, is still conducting their own internal review of the case, centered on his violation of department policy regarding that chokehold.  Yet the grand jury's decision today appears to further muddy civil rights waters already contaminated, according to many people, by the Ferguson decision.

Unfortunately, this Staten Island case may hold legitimate cause for even white New Yorkers to be concerned.

The biggest elephant in the room is why a police officer investigating the illegal sale of cigarettes felt as though a procedure banned by his rule book was the best method of protecting himself.  Garner was a tall, burly man, but it was broad daylight in New York's safest borough, and even if Garner was threatening Pantaleo, surely the "city's finest" have been equipped with better ways of subduing unruly suspects than a chokehold.

Across the country, it's widely known that police officers rarely get indicted by grand juries, mostly because the public wants to give their police departments the benefit of the doubt.  Few of us would want to go out and patrol the neighborhoods we expect our cops to patrol.  But New York's police have a bad record in the civil rights department.  Remember the Central Park Five?  Remember all of the frustration over "stop and frisk"?  One would hope that every single employee of the NYPD would always act with an abundance of caution when they interacted with the public.  But before the cameras come out, like one did that videotaped the last part of Garner's arrest, black New Yorkers unfortunately have a right to be on guard against discrimination and heavy-handedness by rogue cops.

No, not every police officer is a rogue cop.  In fact, even within the NYPD, no proof exists that a significant number of employees are "bad cops."  But it takes the occasional notorious cases like Pantaleo's for public perception to be swayed against the entire force.

And that's why Pantaleo, like Ferguson's Officer Wilson, probably should have been indicted - at least for something.  All police officers are public employees, and doesn't the public have the right to know what they're doing when they're on the clock?  Especially when they're acting on our behalf out on the streets?  If a grand jury no-bills a cop who kills somebody while off-duty, that's one thing.  But for officer-involved on-duty killings, isn't it in the officer's best interests to bring the case to a public courtroom? After all, grand jury proceedings are usually secret, which itself can lend a heavy air of suspicion to whatever decision they reach.  In a public trial of some sort, evidence is presented for everyone to see and evaluate, even if it's in the court of public opinion.

As it is, most police unions vehemently oppose any solution that implies an accused officer acted unlawfully.  A no-bill may agitate some members of the public, but a criminal indictment makes the department look bad.  Yet should public perception trump the justice we say we want in our law enforcement environment?

Some of us will probably always side with the police every time an officer is involved in a deadly incident.  Some of us will probably always oppose the police whenever an officer is involved in a deadly incident.  Yet the rest of us are smart enough to realize that there are good cops and bad cops, and there are people who are belligerent around cops, and there are people who aren't.

Is a secretive grand jury the best way to pick who is who?

* The police union alternatively describes Officer Pantaleo's action generically as a "take-down technique" taught in the police academy.

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