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What’s A Cop To Do? Life After Eric Garner’s Death

Steven Wishnia Aug 14

It’s barely a 10-minute walk from the ferry, but Staten Island’s Tompkinsville feels like it’s in a different city from glitzy Manhattan or trendy Brooklyn. There are a few new luxury buildings on the waterfront, but the neighborhood is primarily working-class and poor, and far more multiethnic than the borough’s suburban stereotype. Amid the cell-phone and 99-cent stores on Bay Street and Victory Boulevard are Mexican bodegas, Trinidadian and Sri Lankan restaurants, an old white man’s hardware store and a place to wire money to Africa. There’s also a hip-hop recording studio and the borough’s only surviving independent bookstore. Tompkinsville Park is a slim triangle populated largely by drunks.

On July 17, two of the drunks got into a fight, and Eric Garner, a large 43-year-old father of six partially disabled by asthma, broke it up, according to people in the neighborhood. The combatants were gone by the time the police came, so they decided to arrest Garner, who sold loose cigarettes on the block. The rest became the most notorious home video since the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991: When Garner got vexed, the cops grabbed him from behind, choked him and threw him to the ground, one pinning his head to the sidewalk while he moaned “I can’t breathe.” On Aug. 1, the city medical examiner’s office announced it had ruled his death a homicide, that he had been killed by compression of the neck and chest — in other words, because he couldn’t breathe while being choked and pinned.

A Long History

The killing is the latest in a depressing four-decade litany, from 10-year-old Clifford Glover in 1973 to African immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999 to 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in 2012, that reads like a local version of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem “Liesense Fi Kill.” In the city’s most publicized cases of police killing civilians, only one officer has gone to prison: Francis Livoti, who strangled 29-year-old Anthony Baez after he accidentally hit Livoti’s car with a football in the Bronx in 1994. Any perceived threat has been grounds for acquittal: The cop who shot Glover got off after claiming that the Queens fourth-grader had “made a reaching motion.”

The deeper issue is that the United States responded to the crime waves of the 1960s through the 1990s essentially by declaring war on black men, treating them as criminal suspects. The number of prisoners exploded from less than 500,000 in the 1970s to more than 2 million by the late ’90s, fueled by mandatory minimum sentences and a tenfold increase in incarcerated drug offenders. This is compounded by common police attitudes: that they are the “thin blue line” protecting the decent people of society, and allowing any disrespect for their authority will let the thugs through to rampage.

The left and left-liberals haven’t handled the issue well either. They’ve focused on the racism of police practices, mass incarceration and law-and-order politics while largely ignoring people’s legitimate fears. Leftists regularly call for abolishing the prison-industrial complex (or abolishing prisons entirely) without articulating a clear idea of how they’d deal with violent crime. That leaves the issue as rightwing property.

Crime Victims

The reality is that the people most likely to be the victims of crime are those living in poor black or Latino neighborhoods. People in these areas are often vehemently ambivalent. They don’t want to live fearing a push-in robbery whenever they unlock their doors or to have to go by a knot of teenage crack dealers with pit bulls and baseball bats to go food shopping, but they also don’t want to live in a police state where their young men are regularly stopped, shoved around and verbally abused. They want to live in a neighborhood where it’s safe for old Puerto Rican men to play dominoes on a card table in front of the bodega, but not one where police haul them off to jail for having an open beer on that table. In pre-Giuliani New York, the unwritten rule was that keeping the bottle in a brown paper bag showed respectful discretion, but from 2001 through 2013, police issued more than 1.5 million summonses for public drinking, almost 300,000 of them in just five precincts, in heavily nonwhite areas like the South Bronx and East New York.

There is a reasonable argument for enforcing the law against low-level offenses or minor obnoxiousness. Men crudely propositioning women on the street isn’t a felony, but if it happens often enough, women won’t feel safe walking there. The problem comes when this “quality of life” policing is used on behalf of people who feel that the very presence of black and Latino youth signifies crime, as a way to make arrest quotas and satisfy metrics-maniac managers on the backs of blacks, or as a way to push gentrifying neighborhoods to a tipping point where only affluent whites feel welcome.

People on Bay Street say Eric Garner was a peaceful man.

There are also situations where police have to be rough. They can’t exactly say, “Excuse me, Mr. Mugger, could you please put your hands behind your back?” The issue is the use of shoot-first or slam-them-up-against-the-wall tactics against people who aren’t enough of a threat to warrant them, against innocent men like Amadou Diallo, a scared teenager with a bag of weed like Ramarley Graham or literally millions of others.

What Good Policing Requires

In other words, good policing requires judgment, being able to tell the difference between a black teenager in sneakers who’s running because he just snatched a purse and one who’s running because his mother said he had to be home for dinner by 6pm. How? “If the kid who’s running home sees a lady with a stroller or a bag of groceries, he’ll stop,” a Latin musician from East New York told me several years ago. “The one who stole the purse, he don’t give a fuck. He’ll knock her down.”

Good cops, dedicated and skilled ones, learn how to look for signs of criminal behavior instead of profiling by race, Neill Franklin of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a former Baltimore city cop and Maryland state trooper, told me in 2012. Police who are “serious about their craft” watch out for the body-language cues that indicate when someone’s carrying a gun or looking to break into parked cars. To search large numbers of people instead of patiently observing to see who the real bad guys are, he said, is both unconstitutional and lazy policing.

As of now, however, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton, while talking about retraining police, are defending the policy of arresting large numbers of people for minor offenses. In the first four months of de Blasio’s administration, an average of 80 people a day were busted for marijuana possession, with six out of seven of them black or Latino — almost completely unchanged from the pattern under Michael Bloomberg. This inevitably provokes resentment from those who, like Eric Garner, feel they’re being harassed for nothing, especially when it’s racially skewed. On July 26 in East New York, police were filmed yoking a pregnant woman by the throat in a confrontation that led to her, her husband and her brother facing charges that included disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The incident began when the family was accused of illegally barbecuing on the street in front of their building.

Steven Wishnia has written about the impact of the war on drugs for The Indypendent, Alternet, the Daily Beast, and the Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA anthology.