A New York City man who was at most guilty of selling loose cigarettes on the street was tackled and placed in a chokehold by a police officer in late August. The man, Eric Garner, protested that he couldn’t breathe, but the officer with his arm around Garner’s didn’t let up. Today, a grand jury announced that it would not indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.
The lack of indictment comes just a week after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, did not indict a police officer there, Darren Wilson, for his role in the shooting death of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown. Both Eric Garner and Michael Brown are black and their deaths, within just days of each other in August, helped reignite a national conversation—as well as protests—about disproportionate police violence against the black community. At a time when black men are killed by police with disturbing regularity, Garner and Brown’s deaths added urgency to a long-simmering but woefully unaddressed crisis.
I’ll leave it to the legal analysts to rehash the evidence presented to the Pantaleo grand jury. Hopefully there will be a transparent accounting of what was introduced. But the fact that two grand juries in fairly rapid succession have failed to indict police officers involved in highly questionable deaths of unarmed black men should give us all pause. In Panaleo’s case, the grand jury’s refusal to indict him despite his use of dangerous and violent tactics doesn’t pass the smell test. Add in historic patterns of NYPD abuse against black men in New York—Amadou Diallo, Abner Loiuma, stop and frisk generally—and the lack of an indictment downright stinks.
Combined, the two cases suggest that more should be done to decouple criminal investigations of police abuse from the conventional prosecutorial system. Attorneys who usually work hand-in-hand with the police in pursuing other criminal cases can’t honestly be expected to be impartial and aggressive in then prosecuting those same officers. It’s worth noting that when prosecutors nationwide decide to bring charges before a grand jury, they usually succeed. In 2010, for instance, federal prosecutors sought indictments in about 162,000 cases and in only 11 cases did grand juries not return indictments. In the face of those statistics, these two non-indictments are glaring.
Even worse, the failure to indict the officers who killed both Eric Garner and Michael Brown deprives their communities of the transparency and accountability that trials ensure. No one is saying that the officers should be tried if there’s not sufficient evidence, but many legal analysts have agreed there’s enough in both cases to at least warrant a trial. There are questions about facts in terms of both Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s movements before their death, questions of fact that should be debated in a court. There are questions about the officers’ states of mind—questions that could be fleshed out and better understood if the cases went to trial.
But the lack of indictments, now twice in a row, seems to add insult to injury—that not only are black men routinely, disproportionately victimized by the police but they are victimized by a legal system that refuses to hold the police accountable.