Tuesday marks the fourth anniversary of Eric Garner's death at the hands of an aggressive group of NYPD officers. In the course of holding Garner down on the ground, one officer, Daniel Pantaleo, applied a chokehold whose use is banned by NYPD guidelines.
We police reformers focus on this incident not only because of its terrible consequences for one man, his family and his community, but also because it dramatically represents what is deeply problematic about NYPD practices and about the response, or lack thereof, of our politicians to those objectionable practices.
The attempted arrest of Garner was a harsh example of the New York Police Department’s basic approach to law enforcement, “broken windows” policing, gone wildly wrong. As applied in our city, this tactic entails police targeting poor communities of color, arresting and ticketing black and brown New Yorkers for infractions virtually decriminalized in white areas. Just one example: For the first three months of this year, 93% of NYPD arrests for marijuana possession involved persons of color, despite research showing that white people use and sell the drug in equal or greater proportions than African-Americans and Latinos.
Shortly after the Garner incident, I spoke confidentially with a young Latino officer, mentioning that it would have been Garner's ninth arrest for selling loose cigarettes. The officer explained that “we have a quota system,” meaning that the department pressures its officers to make a certain number of arrests per month. Posted in Harlem when we talked, he had previously worked in Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish community. Without a trace of anti-Semitism, he said that he would never arrest a Jewish person because “they will make your life miserable.” It’s the black and brown kids, he went on, who are the easy picks. “I don’t like it,” he said, explaining in so many words that “he had to get with the program” to survive on the force.
In presentations about abusive policing, I often state the hard-to-believe truth that all the officers involved in causing Garner's death, including Pantaleo, still work for the NYPD. The news always shocks some in the audience. Mayor de Blasio has falsely claimed that he couldn’t take any disciplinary action until the Justice Department reached a judgment about the case. In fact, he has the power to suspend without pay police officers who abuse their authority. What more dramatic example of abuse can there be than the conduct of those officers captured on the widely seen video?
De Blasio has shamelessly punted on this matter out of political considerations, his fear of appearing soft on crime by criticizing police and of the might of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the officers union whose leadership delights in publicly lashing politicians who call for measures that hold officers accountable for misconduct on the job.
“It stops today” were among Eric Garner’s last words, spoken as officers approached and grabbed him. “It” hasn't, neither the egregious acts of brutality or the daily harm inflicted by broken-windows policing. Four years later, the record shows that politicians in power will not do the right thing. It is up to us, the public and reform advocates, to press for justice not only for Eric Garner, but for all New Yorkers enduring the brunt of biased policing.
Robert Gangi is the director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, an advocacy group that exposes abusive police practices that adversely affect New York City residents who are low-income, people of color and LGBTQIA.