Eric Garner and Daniel Pantaleo: Who Will Police the Police?

Perhaps he was obese and suffering from other health issues, to which I say, “So what?” Eric Garner died after a conflict with NYPD that was unnecessarily violent. Personal health notwithstanding, had Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who took him down, not chosen to use a chokehold, it’s unlikely that Garner would have died on July 17. But Pantaleo, in direct violation of NYPD directives, did use a chokehold and Garner did die. There’s a mountain of shit to unpack here. From the efficacy of grand juries to the extreme power of public sector unions to the role police play in our lives. And every boulder on that mountain is terrible. It’s assumed that the motto, “To protect and serve,” is followed by an unwritten “the people.” But when discussing situations involving unions such as the NYPD, it’s obvious that “the people” is wholly inaccurate and the actual unwritten portion is “ourselves.” Was Garner an exemplar of a law-abiding citizen? No, he wasn’t.

Family and friends said Mr. Garner was married with six children and two grandchildren. Mr. Garner has a criminal record that includes more than 30 arrests dating back to 1980 on charges such as assault, resisting arrest, grand larceny. An official said the charges include multiple incidents in which he was arrested for selling unlicensed cigarettes.

Again, so what? Even citizens with a lengthy rap sheet don’t deserve to be choked out in the streets for violating asinine tax laws. We conservatives, while mostly aghast at the situation, were typically not monolith.

This is a tragedy, in my mind. Eric Garner wasn’t much of a criminal threat, and the police did seem too eager to use force.

Nevertheless, we actually pay them to use force when a law-breaking suspect (even one breaking a trivial law) resists arrest. That is the job we’ve given them.

To say this guy is guilty of murder or manslaughter seems to me to be a case of scapegoating the people we’ve tasked with implementing a policy that we have imposed ourselves.

That’s not an unreasonable assessment. Except the scapegoat in this case isn’t exactly a sterling example of restraint.

The New York Police Department officer who killed Eric Garner with chokehold had once pulled down two black men’s pants in an illegal search and slapped their penises and testicles, the media has learned, forcing the department to pay out thousands of dollars.

Darren Collins and Tommy Rice filed a complaint against Officer Daniel Pantaleo with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, one month after the March 22, 2012 incident.

In their filing, Collins, 46, and Rice, 43, said Pantaleo also “slapped” and “tapped” their testicles in broad daylight.

So Pantaleo has a record of, shall we say, overreacting. Yet the union would rather protect him, force the city to pay out tens of thousands, and then release him back onto the street. Good plan, guys. What could go wrong? Oh.

Though not a wholly apt reference, I’m reminded of a quote by Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor who lived in Nazi Germany.

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Before you invoke Godwin’s Law on me, I am not comparing the NYPD or even NYC to Nazi Germany. But the quote is nonetheless instructive. When we tolerate aggression solely because it does not directly affect us, we risk mission creep. And NYC is nothing if not an example of mission creep. Though the issue of loosies and NYC tax laws is fertile territory, we can discuss that later. For now, let’s focus on the fact that a police officer killed a man who posed no immediate threat because he knew he could get away with it.

Granted, Pantaleo’s record is not one of restraint, but why should it be? He was never given incentive to show restraint. Moreover, none of the surrounding officers so much as flinched at his actions. While it would be easy to assign irrational emotion to Pantaleo and suggest deep systemic problems, the issue isn’t that cut and dried.

Yes, Pantaleo is apparently given to overreaction. Yes, despite this, he kept his job thanks to union protection. But as Matthew wrote in the link above, there are good officers out there.

That’s why this situation has proven more divisive than others and why we shouldn’t ignore it. There are good police officers out there. There are also horrendous ones. We cannot let our view be clouded by the good ones and give the bad ones a pass. Pantaleo killed a man and wasn’t brought to justice. It’s not a racial issue. It’s not a class issue. It’s about the police residing above the law. Would you react differently if you were approached? Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that if we don’t speak up now and demand nuts like Pantaleo be held responsible for their actions, be removed from positions of authority, then when the next Panteleo comes for us, there will be no one to speak up.