Unpunished Police Murders Stir Public Anger from Coast to Coast
December 5, 2014
CBS Evening News & The Associated Press & Lucy Steigerwald / AntiWar.com
From the White House to the streets of some of America's biggest cities, the New York chokehold case converged with the Ferguson shooting and investigations out of South Carolina and Cleveland to stir a national conversation about racial justice and police use of force.
DOJ: Cleveland Police Had Pattern of Excessive Force
CBS Evening News
(December 4, 2014) -- A two-year federal investigation of the Cleveland, Ohio, police force, spanning 600 cases, has found a pattern of excessive force, Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday. As Dave Reynolds reports, the Justice Department will now try to work out an agreement with the city’s police force.
Police Cases Converge to Stir National Debate
Tom Hays and Colleen Long / Associated Press
NEW YORK (December 4, 2014) -- From the White House to the streets of some of America's biggest cities, the New York chokehold case converged with the Ferguson shooting and investigations out of South Carolina and Cleveland to stir a national conversation Thursday about racial justice and police use of force.
A day after a grand jury cleared a white New York City officer in the death of a black man, civil rights leaders pinned their hopes on a promised federal investigation. Demonstrators protested for a second night in New York, carrying replicas of coffins across the Brooklyn Bridge, and turned out in such cities as Denver, Detroit and Minneapolis. And politicians and others talked about the need for better police training, body cameras and changes in the grand jury process to restore faith in the legal system.
"A whole generation of officers will be trained in a new way," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed as he and his police commissioner outlined previously announced plans to teach officers how to communicate better with people on the street.
President Barack Obama weighed in, saying one of the chief issues at stake is "making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally."
Even before the decision in the Eric Garner case came down, racial tensions were running high because of last week's grand jury decision not to charge a white officer in the shooting death of black 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Other cases were added to the mix on Thursday:
In the tiny South Carolina town of Eutawville, a white former police chief was charged with murder in the 2011 shooting of an unarmed black man. Richards Combs' lawyer accused prosecutors of taking advantage of national outrage toward police to obtain the indictment more than three years after the killing.
In Cleveland, the U.S. Justice Department and the city reached an agreement to overhaul the police department after federal investigators found that officers use excessive force far too often, causing deep mistrust, especially among blacks. The investigation was prompted chiefly by a 2012 police car chase that ended in the deaths of two unarmed people in a hail of 137 bullets.
Just last week, protesters took to the streets of Cleveland after a white police officer shot and killed a black 12-year-old boy carrying what turned out to be pellet gun.
At a news conference in New York after a night of protests led to 83 arrests, the Rev. Al Sharpton called the state-level grand jury system "broken" when it comes to police brutality cases and urged federal authorities to fix it.
"The federal government must do in the 21st century what it did in the mid-20th century," he said. "Federal intervention must come now and protect people from state grand juries."
Still, federal civil rights cases against police officers are exceedingly rare.
In the past two decades, only a few such cases have reached trial in New York -- most notably the one involving Abner Louima, who was sodomized with a broom handle in a police station in 1997. Several other high-profile cases didn't come together.
That's largely because federal prosecutors must meet a high standard of proof in showing that police deliberately deprived victims of their civil rights through excessive force, said Alan Vinegrad, who as a federal prosecutor handled the Louima case.
Federal intervention "doesn't happen often and it shouldn't happen often," said James Jacobs, a constitutional law professor at New York University Law School. "They should only step in when the local prosecution was a sham."
Activists have claimed that the grand jury investigation of Garner's death was indeed a sham. An amateur video showed Officer Daniel Pantaleo putting Garner in an apparent chokehold, and the medical examiner said the maneuver contributed to the death.
But Pantaleo's attorney, Stuart London, expressed confidence Thursday that his client won't face federal prosecution.
"There's very specific guidelines that are not met in this case," London said. "This is a regular street encounter. It doesn't fall into the parameters."
Acting at the Staten Island district attorney's request, a judge released a few details Thursday from the grand jury proceedings -- among other things, it watched four videos and heard from 50 witnesses, 22 of them civilians. District Attorney Daniel Donovan didn't ask for testimony, transcripts or exhibits to be made public.
But London offered some details, saying the officer's testimony focused on "his remorse and the fact that he never meant to harm Mr. Garner that day."
Pantaleo admitted he heard Garner say, "I can't breathe," but believed that once he got him down on the ground and put him on his side, he would be revived by paramedics, London said. The officer also testified that he "used a takedown move and any contact to the neck was incidental," the lawyer added.
London said the grand jury also heard from other officers who described how Pantaleo had tried in vain to talk Garner into complying with them -- something not seen on video.
"Let's make this easy. You've been through this before," the officer said he told Garner.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the Garner case and others like it around the country have a "corrosive" effect and cause many to lose faith in the criminal justice system.
Associated Press writers Karen Matthews and Jonathan Lemire in New York and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
The Failure of Police Reform
Lucy Steigerwald / AntiWar.com
(December 3, 2014) -- For that first week or so after the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown, it seemed like there was momentum towards police reform. During the long months between the shooting and the grand jury’s lack of indictment of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, though, things got too complicated.
Conservatives initially interested in police reform backed off when it seemed as if Brown had the audacity to be a criminal and a jerk. Whether Wilson was at all credible -- he certainly didn’t follow crime scene protocol, by the way -- even if Brown wasn’t, will never be resolved. Certainly, whether Michael Brown was the perfect case to hold up against American police or not, there have been plenty of equally worthy ones before and after his death.
So if the motivation could come from Kelly Thomas, Tamir Rice, or Michael Brown, or hundreds of others, where is that police reform?
Not in Congress. Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson’s (D) bill to stop the Pentagon’s multibillion dollar 1033 program withered in the face of Republican disapproval (barring such civil liberty stalwarts as Justin Amash). But militarized statism is bipartisan.
Indeed, as Reason’s Ed Krayewski noted, four Democrats who put their hands up in the "hands up don’t shoot" position on the House floor on December 1 sure seem to be against police excess. Weird then how in June, before Michael Brown’s death made reform briefly politically convenient, they voted against limiting the 1033 program.
President Obama is another government official who appears to be taking that self-serving tactic identified by John Stossel -- namely jumping in front of a parade and pretending to be leading it -- when it comes to police reform.
Earlier this week, Obama announced his hope to spend $360 million on new efforts towards community policing, transparency -- not your strong suit there buddy -- and training in the use of 50,000 new body cameras. The feds will cover half the bill. This -- federalist or balance of power qualms noted and sympathized with -- is an improvement, but it is also a weak acquiescence to the political issue of the moment.
Tepid cheers should follow, but it barely scratches the surface in terms of getting somewhere substantial. There are still going to be some 600-700,000 sworn law enforcement officers who are not going to be on camera while they work.
And cameras as a tool for fixing police are just now facing a backlash. Certainly the lack of a camera on Darren Wilson makes it certain that nobody will ever be satisfied about what went down during his confrontation with Brown. However, Kelly Thomas, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner died on camera, and there have been no consequences.
Thomas’ killers were acquitted earlier this year. Rice’s death is too fresh to know what may happen, but it doesn’t seem good. (This is because the child had an airsoft gun, and most of the time when someone is carrying something that looks enough like a real gun, cops are excused when they pump them full of lead.)
Garner’s death (via Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold) going unpunished is the current outrage. On Wednesday, the media and twitter erupted with the news that the New York Police Department cop who killed Garner would not be indicted. Much like that first week after Brown was shot, left and right were outraged together.
The right maybe was focusing more on Garner’s accused economic "crime" of selling loose cigarettes, and the left was more focused on Garner being black, but the disgust over the lack of indictment so far seems genuinely bipartisan. This disgust could have more staying power than even Ferguson.
But what to do about it, or any police misconduct? Will 50,000 cameras do anything except add a few more grim YouTube videos to the catalog? Certainly it is better to have video evidence of bad police behavior, but Garner and numerous other cases show that there is so much more than that to worry over.
A grand jury failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo, and failed to indict Darren Wilson. The three officers who went to trial over the beating death of the homeless, schizophrenic Kelly Thomas were all acquitted. The respect for police officers seems to overpower any sense of accountability for their actions, even when they end in death.
It’s not just prosecutors, or police unions, or militarized tech. It is all of those things. And it is a lack of eyes -- electronic and otherwise -- on police officers. But it is also the simple fact that nobody -- not even the public -- has any interest in holding the people with a legal monopoly on lethal force accountable for their lethal actions.
Though the backlash against Garner’s death and the subsequent lack of justice seems promising now, it’s easy to see how it could also peter out as a movement. It will fracture, like Ferguson did. The left will resent any focus on the very relevant laws against loose cigarettes. The right will accuse the left of playing the race card too much, and ignore some real inequalities in criminal justice.
Militarized police didn’t kill Garner with their war tech. But militarization is not just Pentagon castoffs. It is a mindset. It is a belief that there is a war on cops, and that the people they are ostensibly tasked with protecting are out for blood.
It is a bizarre public doublethink which praises the bravery of cops, while allowing them to use even lethal force the moment they feel threatened. It is every law against drugs, guns, or untaxed cigarettes. It is stopping and frisking innocent men day after day.
And it is, too, the militarized tech that rolls out whenever a backlash does form. It has all the hallmarks of an occupation. It is the instinctual fury of the occupied people when they are faced with dour, robotic lines of riot cops coming into their neighborhood.
Platitudes about equality in the justice system are now coming from the highest office in the land. Perhaps Obama’s 50,000 new cameras will avert a few police-citizen disasters, and confirm the citizen’s side of things in a few more. But the state of policing is so much worse than that. We need to see police at work, and now we can. We can watch the crackdown on protests, the stops, the profiling, the brutality, and the deaths now -- we just seem unable to do anything about it.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.