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Call the question in Staten Island

| Monday, December 8, 2014

As with any controversial ruling or decision, I saw a lot of Facebook comments this last week ranging from uninformed to misinformed and from judgmental to apathetic regarding the decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the case of Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, New York. It was astonishing to me how people equated the case to the Ferguson, Missouri, case in which a grand jury chose not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown the week prior. The two cases are very different, but frustration and contention with both is understandable.

The Ferguson case included conflicting witness accounts and involved one police officer who claims his actions were in response to resistance or assault. The case likely would not have met the burden of proof required in a criminal case (although that is not what an indictment is, but more on that later). The Staten Island incident, on the other hand, was videotaped and involved multiple officers arresting one man based on his selling cigarettes without tax stamps. The man was not causing harm to the officers, his death was caused by one of the police officers employing tactics that were banned in the New York Police Department and there very well could have been a conviction of the officer on the charges of excessive use of force or wrongful death.

Before getting too deep into the issue, let me start with a basic lesson: an indictment is not a criminal verdict. Given what I have seen and heard, many people either forget that or simply do not know that in the first place. A criminal verdict determines whether a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty if there is reasonable doubt. An indictment means that there is probable cause for a trial and does not leave any formal indication of guilt or lack thereof. An indictment simply calls the question.

In Ferguson, an unarmed man was left dead and the details leading up to his death were not at all definite. The dispute of circumstances and the fact that a death occurred perhaps should have resulted in an indictment of the police officer, leading to a trial. If the case had gone to trial, it is my belief the jury would not have ended up rendering a guilty verdict for the officer who killed the man based on the fact there was reasonable doubt stemming from the conflicting witness accounts. By no means am I saying the police officer was guilty or innocent here, I am just stating that the burden of proof likely would not have been met in a trial.

In Staten Island, a man was left dead and the details leading up to his death were fairly clear. A man was selling cigarettes and multiple police officers wanted to arrest him for breaking a rule. He showed no physical resistance until a police officer came up behind him and put him into a chokehold, a practice explicitly banned in the NYPD. According to the coroner’s report, the man died as a result of the chokehold. I strongly believe that this case should have at least gone to trial, and I think there is a good chance the officer would have been found guilty. I think the question was worth calling. It is worth finding out exactly what the circumstances were to determine if the police officer was guilty of excessive force and causing the wrongful death of an unarmed man.

The evidence against the police officer was simply more substantial in the Staten Island case than in the Ferguson case, which is one reason many prominent political figures have called the grand jury’s decision not to indict into question. Former President George W. Bush said, “How sad. You know, the verdict was hard to understand.” Speaker of the House John Boehner stated, “The American people deserve more answers about what really happened here, and was our system of justice handled properly?” President Barack Obama said, “Too many Americans feel deep unfairness” in the criminal justice system. Both Senator Rand Paul and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called for reform in our criminal justice system.

I do not think the Staten Island case is only a race issue. I do not think it is a necessarily partisan issue. I think the death of Eric Garner is above all a justice issue. Our justice system should be based on the principle of investigating as thoroughly as possible to find the truth and deal with those guilty of injustice appropriately. A man should not die for the simple, though illegal, act of selling cigarettes. If a police officer ever uses excessive force, he should be severely reprimanded. We should hold law enforcement to a higher standard, not let them get away with more. If there is ever a reasonable possibility of guilt, we should call the question.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

About Kyle Palmer

Kyle Palmer is a senior from Dillon Hall studying accountancy. He welcomes any challenges to his opinions. He can be reached at kpalmer6@nd.edu

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  • Charles Quackenbush

    Everybody is now a police use-of-force expert. From
    watching a video we all think we know exactly what happened. Somehow, a man
    repeatedly and clearly saying, “I can’t breathe.” (a task requiring
    lungfuls of air) while there is nothing around his neck is evidence he
    is being choked to death. This man was being lawfully taken into custody while
    resisting arrest. Once a decision to arrest is made, negotiations do not take
    place. It is going to happen…peacefully or not. Garner chose to resist. The
    police officers appear to be using long-accepted immobilization techniques to get him
    cuffed. He is not struck a single time. This was not his first arrest. He knew
    the drill. He chose to engage in illegal activity and had been
    arrested many times before. Had Garner quietly put his hands behind his back, he probably would have been released before these officers went off shift that day.

    • ND Senior

      The chokehold has been banned by the NYPD for years. It is not a “long-accepted immobilization technique” and was not warranted.

      • Charles Quackenbush

        You are correct…but it is not a “crime” as defined in law. However, a “headlock” which is taught in police academies is not a choke hold. Only when pressure is consistently applied to the sides of the neck, rendering a subject unconscious or to the trachea, cutting off the air supply, can it be defined as a “choke hold.” I do not know from the video if a “choke hold” was applied but I do know Garner was getting plenty of air when he complained of breathing difficulties and nobody was choking him. It is not uncommon for morbidly obese people or those under the influence of drugs to die suddenly when resisting police. It is standard practice to swarm a resisting subject if several officer are present, rendering him immobile while cuffs are applied.

  • Charles Quackenbush

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zyhOW-8Zcc This is a pretty good look into the mind of a cop…narrated by Al Pacino!