Eric Garner Sealed His Own Fate

eric_garner_resist_breathe_protesters_12-17-14-1 Thousands of demonstrators filled Manhattan streets on the second day of protest against the lack of charges in the death of Eric Garner. (Photo by a katz / Shutterstock.com.)

Gentle readers, repeat after me: “Eric Garner was not choked to death.  Eric Garner was not choked to death.  Eric Garner was not choked to death.”  You may now count yourselves among that small but distinguished minority of Americans who know this to be true.

As I’ve followed the aftermath of Mr. Garner’s death, I’ve been struck by the ignorance displayed by so many ordinarily sensible people offering commentary on the matter.  I use the term “ignorance” not as an insult but rather in the benign sense that they are simply uninformed on the facts of the case.  Charles Krauthammer, for example, called the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict the NYPD officer implicated in Garner’s death as “totally inexplicable.” George Will took things a qualified adjective further when he labeled the decision as “inexplicable and probably inexcusable.”  And Berkeley law professor and former U.S. deputy attorney general John Yoo, discussing the incident on a recent Ricochet podcast (relevant portion at about 57:00), revealed himself as no more informed on the issue than the two columnists.  “Looking at the video of what happened,” said Mr. Yoo, “I don’t see any reason why force was required there.  With the guy selling loose cigarettes, I don’t see the need to use deadly force to restrain him.”

I have nothing but admiration for Dr. Krauthammer and Messrs. Will and Yoo, but I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb here in speculating that none of these men, for all their accomplishments, has ever had the experience of trying to arrest a 350-lb. man who has made it clear he does not wish to be arrested.  I have, and I offer here a few lessons gleaned from that experience.

I joined the Los Angeles Police Department at a time when officers routinely applied chokeholds to combative suspects.  Properly performed, a chokehold was an efficient, and when compared to techniques that replaced it, humane way to end a physical altercation.  The guy got froggy (as the expression went), he got choked out, and he woke up in handcuffs, most often none the worse for wear and with his attitude much improved.

On very rare occasions, however, they did not wake up, which led to the LAPD’s ban of the practice except in cases where an officer’s life is in danger.  Many other police departments, including New York City’s, have instituted similar policies.  But then came the law of unintended consequences: With this force option no longer available, altercations became more violent and more prolonged, and they resulted in more injuries to suspects as officers were trained to incapacitate them with batons rather than subdue them quickly with a chokehold.  If offered a choice, most suspects would have preferred momentary unconsciousness to having their limbs smashed with a metal baton.