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Eric Garner Death: A Manageable Police Crisis?

July 21, 2014

That Mayor de Blasio delayed his trip to Italy by just a day suggests he believes the first crisis of his mayoralty is manageable — at least in the short run.

That crisis involves the death, possibly from a department-banned chokehold, of 43-year-old Eric Garner, a 350-pound black man with diabetes and heart problems. It took place as police wrestled him to the ground while attempting to arrest him for the minor infraction of selling untaxed cigarettes.

The death of 6' 3' Garner may evoke memories of fatal cases involving the NYPD over the last two decades. But it shouldn't.

Garner’s death is not comparable to that of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, shot and killed in 1999 in the Bronx by four cops who mistakenly believed he had a gun.

Nor is Garner a victim like Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant, who in 1997 was sodomized with a broomstick by police officer Justin Volpe in the bathroom of Brooklyn’s 70th precinct.

Nor is Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who a partial video shows threw his arm around Garner’s neck as he struggled to subdue the much larger Garner, the equivalent of police officer Frank Livoti. In 1994, during Bill Bratton’s first term as police commissioner, Livoti instigated a confrontation with Anthony Baez, then used a chokehold that led to Baez’s death.

The fact is that the officers attempting to arrest Garner had been sent to clear an area that local merchants had complained was a longtime scene of unlawful activity. Garner, as the video shows, did resist arrest. He had been arrested previously some 30 times.

It is also unclear whether he died as a result of the chokehold. Medical examiner spokeswoman Julie Bolcer says that, while a preliminary autopsy was conducted Friday, “there is no determination as to the cause and manner of death,” which she said are pending further studies.

And despite the video showing Pantaleo throwing his arm around Garner’s neck and Garner screaming, “I can’t breathe,” throwing one’s arm around an arrestee’s neck for a second or two is not necessarily the same as a chokehold.

Of course, none of this justifies Garner’s death. Garner may or may not have been breaking the law. He was resisting arrest. Yet he was no threat to anyone. The four or five cops who brought him to the ground were not fighting for their lives. No one should die over a crime like this.

As Al Sharpton, the city’s preeminent rabble-rouser, put it at a rally over the weekend, “The issue is not whether one was selling cigarettes. The issue was how an unarmed man was subjected to a chokehold, and the result is he is no longer with us.”

As is unfortunately the case of the deaths of African-Americans in police custody, two separate and distinct narratives have emerged.

One narrative is that cops were responding to the department’s longtime “broken windows” directive, initiated by Bratton in his first term as commissioner, to stamp out minor crimes to prevent major ones.

The second narrative is that Garner’s death was a result of police brutality and racism.

As a group called Communities United for Police Reform put it: Garner’s death is “yet another example of unnecessary police encounters resulting from broken windows-style policing that targets New Yorkers of color….Sadly, Mr. Garner is one of too many New Yorkers of color who have unjustly had their lives cut short by police officers over the past decades.”

De Blasio, who ran for mayor with an anti-police agenda and with a constituency full of anti-police rhetoric, is in a tough and tricky spot.

The mayor can’t afford to lose the cops by going out too far against them. “Otherwise,” as a police source put it, “they are going to go dead.”

Bratton has placed Pantaleo on modified assignment, removing his guns. PBA President Pat Lynch has called Pantaleo’s modification “a knee-jerk reaction for political reasons.”

At his rally on Saturday, Sharpton, who is something of a bellwether when it comes to baiting the police, refrained from criticizing de Blasio, his supposed ally. He also did not criticize Bratton, his new friend. Nor did he criticize the media of which he is now a part.

Instead, he said he had “very serious questions” about whether undue influence by the PBA could undermine an investigation.

De Blasio’s first crisis may be manageable in the short run. Let’s see what the future brings.

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Copyright © 2014 Leonard Levitt