No indictment in Staten “choking” case

A Staten Island grand jury has declined to indict the white police officer who killed a black suspect who resisted arrest. The evidence before the grand jury has not been released; hopefully, it will be. But the entire scene was captured on video, and the video is disturbing.

Let’s first recognize that this case bears little resemblance to Michael Brown’s. Brown robbed a convenience store and committed assault in the course of doing so. He then attacked a police officer and shots were fired during the attack. Afterwards, Brown ran away, but then, according to multiple witnesses, charged back at the officer. Claims that Brown surrendered by holding his hands up are contradicted by reliable testimony.

In Staten Island, the suspect, Eric Garner, was selling cigarettes illegally. He was confronted by a number of police officers. Garner did not attack any of them. However, it looks to me like he resisted arrest, albeit rather passively.

The officers got Garner on the ground and, as I view the video, had him largely under control. One of the officers applied what looks like a choke hold (but might have been an aggressive headlock). Garner stated over and over that he couldn’t breathe, but the officer maintained his hold. As a result, Garner, who apparently had a number of medical problems including obesity, died.

There is no doubt that the officer who killed Garner was informed by the victim repeatedly that, because of the officer’s hold, Garner couldn’t breathe. It also looks very much like the officer didn’t need to maintain the hold that prevented Garner from breathing in order to keep him subdued. Garner was on the ground looking like a beached whale with multiple officers more or less on top of him. Surely, the police officer could have loosened his hold without jeopardizing the arrest.

Second degree manslaughter occurs in New York when someone recklessly causes a death. I’m not going to express an opinion yet as to whether the officer who killed Garner should be tried for this offense. But it’s easy to see why many people, including some conservatives, believe that he should have been indicted.

A wholly separate issue is whether the white officer who killed Garner, a black man, acted out of racial animus. Absent past evidence of true racism on the officer’s part, I see no basis for inferring racism in this case. If Garner had been an enormous white man resisting arrest, it seems quite possible, if not likely, that he would have been victimized by the same recklessness (if that’s what it was) as occurred here. But who knows?

A final issue is whether the grand jury’s decision would have different if the case didn’t involve a white officer and a black victim. Before even speculating about this, we need to know the racial composition of the grand jury. We also need to reach a firm conclusion about the merits of its decision.

But unlike in Ferguson, I understand why many believe race may well have entered into the grand jury’s decision.