All Democrats want to take your guns. All Republicans are racist. So is law enforcement, and police brutality is commonplace.
Of course, none of those statements is true, but they highlight the groupthink that has infected the national conversation. When a police-involved death occurs, it seems there are no shades of gray anymore, no need for facts, clarifying details or perspective, just the knee-jerk conclusion that the police officer was wrong.
At the last Democratic presidential debate, the opening statement of candidate Bill De Blasio, mayor of New York City, was interrupted by people chanting, “Fire Pantaleo!” It was a reference to New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is white and was blamed for the 2014 “chokehold death” of a black man named Eric Garner. Pantaleo has described his action as more of a “wrestling” or “seatbelt” maneuver designed to bring down a disorderly suspect.
The backstory: Garner had been warned or arrested multiple times for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island’s Bay Street. On the day Garner died, police got a call about a disturbance there, and when they arrived they recognized Garner. The 43-year-old father of six tried to explain that he had just broken up a fight between two men and was not selling cigarettes. Garner raised his arms and his voice and said he was tired of being harassed by police. He told the two responding officers, “No more. This stops today!”
On this hot July day, Garner, who weighed 395 pounds and had asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure and an enlarged heart, resisted police, flailed his arms and refused to cooperate. Officer Pantaleo moved in to arrest and subdue him, grabbing Garner from behind and putting him in the oft-reported chokehold. Almost immediately, there were more than a half-dozen officers on the scene. There were also remarkably inattentive paramedics who rendered no aid in the crucial early minutes after Garner slammed to the ground and repeatedly uttered, “I can’t breathe.”
Garner was pronounced dead about an hour after this encounter. The medical examiner’s report said the death resulted from a “cascade of events” starting with the chokehold. The medical examiner cited Garner’s asthma, heart disease and obesity as contributing factors to this “homicide.” (That designation does not mean a crime has occurred.) It’s likely that if Garner had simply cooperated with police, he would not have died that day.
So, did the cascade of events start with the chokehold, or did it start when Garner stubbornly refused to cooperate, triggering the hands-on confrontation? Should the officers have simply taken Garner’s word that he wasn’t breaking the law and then walked away? What personal responsibility does a suspect have if his actions ultimately lead to him being hurt or killed?
In late 2014, a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo. Last month, after a lengthy investigation by the feds, the U.S. Justice Department decided not to charge him for Garner’s death. Garner’s supporters, unhappy with the outcome of this due process, still continue to press for what they call “justice,” staging nationwide street protests and a nationally broadcast disruption of the presidential debate. They want Pantaleo to be held accountable for the death, and at the very least, they want him fired and stripped of his pension.
An administrative law judge recently ruled that Pantaleo was “reckless” during the Garner arrest and should be dismissed from the force. But the final decision is up to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, who says he will likely decide by the end of this month. O’Neill is under tremendous pressure from all sides.
The point here is that almost all police-involved deaths, including fatal shootings, are a cascade of events. Some occur when an officer confronts a criminal in the act. Many happen when police respond to domestic abuse calls, which are notoriously dangerous for cops. Sometimes an officer responds with deadly force because he truly fears for his life and the safety of the public. Some deaths are simply accidents.
Are there dangerous, rogue cops who need to be removed? You bet, but the vast majority go to work every day to keep the public peace.
There are 670,000 full-time law enforcement officers in the United States. It is simply not fair to paint them all with the racist brush so many employ these days. Officer Pantaleo was trying to do his job that day, taking an uncooperative suspect into custody. Did Garner’s death result from police brutality, or was it a tragic accident when a much smaller police officer tried to subdue a large suspect who aggressively did not want to comply? Was the fatal health event Garner suffered in his agitated state the cop’s fault or Garner’s?
Asking these questions is not victim shaming. It is a path to the truth. And the truth is that the growing trend toward distrust of police leaves us with officers who can become more preoccupied with protecting themselves and less so with protecting us.
— Diane Dimond is the author of three books, including Be Careful Who You Love Inside the Michael Jackson Case, which is now updated with new chapters and is available as an audiobook. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.