December 4, 2014

FORKEN | Hold Police Accountable

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Just nine days after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson following the shooting death of unarmed Michael Brown, the mockery of the American justice system continued in Staten Island. There, Officer Daniel Pantaleo eluded an indictment stemming from the July choking death of unarmed Eric Garner. Dissimilar from the Michael Brown case, which was plagued by conflicting witness testimony, a bystander recorded the death of Eric Garner, clearly displaying the excessive use of force from Officer Pantaleo.

On July 17, Eric Garner was approached by a group of police officers that accused Garner of illegally selling cigarettes. When the officers attempted to handcuff Garner, one officer leaped on Garner, placing him in a chokehold the New York Police Department deemed illegal in 1993. A few seconds later, Garner was gasping for air as his head was pinned to the ground by a group of police officers. It was captured on video. His last words were, “I can’t breathe.” The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. Eric Garner was murdered in broad daylight on a sidewalk in Staten Island and, according to our justice system, that doesn’t warrant a trial.

Though the refusal to indict Officer Wilson in Ferguson was troubling at a minimum, there were at least conflicting reports regarding witness testimony, with some witnesses claiming that Brown had rushed towards Officer Wilson. However, according to a PBS NewsHour report on witness testimony, 16 out of 29 witnesses claimed that Brown held his hands up when Officer Wilson shot him, while more than half of the statements maintained that Brown was fleeing from Officer Wilson while being fired upon. Only five witnesses testified that Brown reached toward his waistband at any point during the confrontation.

Was there enough evidence to convict Officer Wilson? Probably not. If only there were some method afforded to our justice system that weighed conflicting witness testimony before coming to a verdict. A trial however, was never going to be an option because an indictment was never an option. Prosecutor Robert McCulloch intentionally threw the case.

According to CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, “McCulloch gave Wilson’s case special treatment. He turned it over to the grand jury, a rarity itself, and then used the investigation as a document dump, an approach that is virtually without precedent in the law of Missouri or anywhere else.”

The National Bar Association released a statement, saying, “The National Bar Association is questioning how the grand jury, considering the evidence before them, could reach the conclusion that Darren Wilson should not be indicted and tried for the shooting death of Michael Brown.”

Video evidence confirms that in the case of Eric Garner, there was no scuffle with officers, except for the one manufactured by police that resulted in Garner’s death. Garner posed absolutely no threat to the safety of the surrounding officers, save for being big and black. How is that a police officer — who was in no danger — can kill a man using an illegal chokehold and not go on trial?

Why was Eric Frein, a white man who murdered one officer and seriously wounded another, taken alive after a two-month manhunt in Pennsylvania?

Why was James Holmes, the white suspect in the Aurora theater shootings, who was donned in full combat gear and stocked with weapons, taken alive after killing 12 people and injuring 58?

Why was a black 12-year old, Tamir Rice, shot and killed for holding a BB gun that was reported as fake, in less than a two second confrontation by a police officer on a playground in Cleveland?

Why was Eric Garner murdered for selling cigarettes and standing on a sidewalk?

I’m not advocating that police should have killed Frein or Holmes, but it’s evident that a racial bias exists when lethal white men are arrested alive and unarmed black men are killed on the spot.

Police have an unenvious occupation and deserve to be recognized for their sacrifice and service, but that doesn’t excuse the few that abuse their power and position as a license to kill. Eric Garner’s death was not an unfortunate accident; it was an avoidable catastrophe resulting from a reckless police officer that had little fear of retribution from the judicial system.

Police are justified in deploying lethal force either when they reasonably believe their life or the lives of surrounding bystanders to be in imminent danger or when keeping a suspect of a dangerous felony from escaping. Eric Garner was neither deadly nor dangerous, yet he is dead. Rather, he was murdered at the chokehold of an officer who was himself breaking the law. It’s time to hold police accountable.