One Police Plaza

No Due Process for Some

August 25, 2014

All the racial rhetoric over Eric Garner and Michael Brown ignores the presumption of innocence of the two cops involved in their deaths.

Not that you might expect to hear much about that from the Rev. Al Sharpton — but what about our so-called political leaders?

Attorney General Eric Holder flew out to Ferguson, Missouri, last week, ostensibly to monitor the investigation into the shooting of Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. While Sharpton and others have called for Wilson’s head on a platter, Holder remains quiet about the possibility that the officer might have been justified in the shooting.

Back in New York, there’s plenty of criticism over Garner — a 43-year-old black man who died after an apparent department-banned chokehold by officer Daniel Pantaleo — not just from Sharpton but also from some African American leaders. 

At Saturday’s march in Staten Island, Sharpton linked Garner’s and Brown’s deaths as victims of racist police officers. Former Gov. David Paterson said: “We will not stop until someone goes to jail.”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) said:  “The only way we will be satisfied is if the officer involved the death of Eric Garner will be convicted and sent upstate.”

But what about the rights of Wilson and Pantaleo? Not that the officers are necessarily innocent, but aren’t they entitled to the presumption of innocence and due process — as American citizens?

According to eyewitnesses, Wilson shot Brown while his hands were up, but Wilson maintains that Brown — who like Garner stood nearly 6-foot-4 and weighed close to 300 pounds — attacked him. A video, released by the police — which Sharpton and Brown’s lawyer and family described as “character assassination” — showed Brown earlier that day stealing cigars from a convenience store and roughing up a clerk who tried to stop him.

In New York, police say Pantaleo had been assigned to clear the area where he confronted Garner of panhandlers. The same video that appeared to show Pantaleo using a chokehold also showed Garner, who had 30 previous arrests, resisting arrest and saying, “This ends now.”

Commissioner Bill Bratton placed Pantaleo on modified desk duty without his gun, but Norman Siegel, the former head of the NY Civil Liberties Union, said the commissioner may have gone too far when he said Pantaleo “appeared” to have used a chokehold. “What Bratton should have added,” Siegel said, “was that we need to wait for all the facts to come in before we reach any conclusions.”

Indeed, police leaders can also undermine a cop’s presumption of innocence. When they do, unexpected consequences can result.

In 2008, Lt. Michael Pigott ordered an officer to Taser Iman Morales, an emotionally disturbed man perched on the ledge of a Bedford-Stuyvesant building. While holding an eight-foot fluorescent lightbulb, Morales menaced the cop who was trying to rescue him.

After Pigott ordered his officer to fire the Taser, Morales fell to the pavement and died, his awful end filmed by witnesses and shown repeatedly on TV. Pigott took full responsibility for Morales’s death and publicly apologized to Morales’s family.

Nonetheless, then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stripped Pigott of his badge and gun, placed him on modified duty and had him warned that he faced jail time. Eight days later, Pigott committed suicide with a gunshot to his head. His suicide note, which he left alongside pictures of his three children, said he didn’t want his family seeing him behind bars.

A former top police official who asked for anonymity to speak about the Garner case said the rhetoric by Paterson and Jeffries “raises expectations for an indictment of Pantaleo and subsequent charges of racism if there is none. It’s an attempt to bully the Staten Island district attorney, Dan Donovan.”

At the same time, both Sharpton and Jeffries [together with four other black city Congressmen] have called on the feds to take the Garner case from Donovan, saying he may fear to indict because many police officers live in Staten Island.

There have been similar calls in Missouri for taking the Brown case from St. Louis District Attorney Robert McCulloch, saying he cannot objectively prosecute Wilson because as a boy, his own father, a policemen, was fatally shot by a black man.

“People think the more you demonstrate, the more chances you have of getting a federal prosecution,” Siegel said. “But federal cases are difficult to make. You have to show intent and willfulness and the connection to race in a cop’s actions and that is hard to prove.

“In the old days in the deep South, mobs of whites used to march on courthouses to pressure juries into convictions. That’s why I never demonstrate in front of courthouses,” he added.

“Political leaders must be patient and disciplined. If they act for political reasons, that’s when we get in trouble.” 


Copyright © 2014 Leonard Levitt