Thoughts on the Death of Eric Garner
Eric Garner, of New York, died on July 17, 2014. He had been confronted by police about selling loose cigarettes (sold that way to avoid the city tax) and during this encounter Officer Pantaleo put him in an apparent chokehold. Garner died from “neck compression” and “the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Not surprisingly, the use of chokeholds is banned by the New York City Police Department. On December 3, 2014 a grand jury decided not to indict the officer, although the coroner had ruled Garner’s death a homicide.
This failure to indict follows a familiar pattern: though grand juries almost always indict non-police, they almost never indict police. As I have said before, perhaps this is because there is almost always probable cause to indict the non-police and almost never enough to indict police. Some might, however, contend that this disparity is grounded in injustice.
In general, the media pundits have been critical of the way the police handled the situation and the verdict of the grand jury. Bill O’Reilly and many people at Fox News fall into this camp and this has dismayed some Fox viewers. There are, however, media pundits that have blamed Garner for his own death. The justifications they advance are fairly stock ones and were also deployed in response to the death of Michael Brown, who was shot to death by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Because these approaches are often commonly used in such situations, they are worth considering.
One advanced by Representative Peter King is that Garner died because he was obese. On the one hand, King might be right: Garner’s health issues most likely played a causal role in his death. If he had been in good health, then he might not have been killed by what seems to have been a chokehold.
There are two obvious responses to this. The first is that the officer should not have been using a chokehold—there is a good reason that the police department forbids officers to use this technique. This reason is that it is easy to badly injure or kill someone using this attack. While the police can legitimately use force, there are many other techniques that are effective and far less likely to severely injure or kill a person.
The second is that police have a moral obligation to consider the condition of the person when engaging a suspect. This includes both the initial condition of the person (such as being in poor health) as well as what is happening to a person. While the police have the right to restrain a suspect, this comes with the obligation not to needlessly injure or kill the person.
To be fair to the police, it is not always easy to tell whether or not someone has a condition that might make him more likely to be injured or killed. In the heat of a struggle it can also be difficult to tell when a person is being injured. However, in some cases it is quite clear that a person is being subject to needless injury—which seems to be the case with Garner.
Rudi Giuliani and others advanced two justifications. The first is that Garner was a criminal and the second is that Garner resisted arrest. These were also advanced in the case of Michael Brown, although the officer who shot Brown apparently did not know Brown had robbed a store earlier.
In general, being a criminal does change a person’s status and does justify the police taking action against the person. So, if Garner was breaking the law, then the police would be right in arresting him. Likewise, if Brown robbed the store, then the police would have been justified in arresting him. Naturally, there are moral exceptions in the case of unjust laws and evil states. Interestingly, some of those speaking out in this case have focused on the cigarette tax law that Garner is alleged to have violated rather than on Garner’s death.
While the police do, in general, have the right to arrest criminals, this is rather different from making it acceptable for the police to kill alleged criminals. After all, criminals have the right to a trial and justice should not be meted out by the barrel of a gun or by a chokehold.
Naturally, the police can be justified in using force and even lethal force against criminals—but the mere fact that a person is (or is alleged to be) a criminal is not sufficient to justify killing him. Not surprisingly, this is where the second justification comes into play, namely that Garner was resisting arrest.
If it is assumed that the arrest is morally legitimate, then the person being arrested does not have the right to resist that arrest. Since what is legal is not the same as what is moral, there can be unjust laws and there clearly can be evil governments. However, for the sake of the discussion, let it be assumed that the police were acting in the right when trying to arrest Garner and that as such he did not have the moral right to resist. This can, of course, be debated.
Even if it is granted that Garner did not have the right to resist, there is still the question of whether or not his resistance justifies his death. I do agree that there can be cases in which resistance does morally justify the use of lethal force. For example, there was a tragic shooting in my own city of Tallahassee. A former Florida State University student shot people at the FSU library and fired at the police when they arrived. They returned fire, killing him. While it would have been preferable for the police to have not killed him, that was their only viable option to protect the civilians in the area and themselves.
From a moral standpoint, the police are justified in using the force needed to subdue the person (assuming they are otherwise acting morally) but not excessive force. While an officer does have the right of self-preservation, the officer is also morally obligated to accept some risks so as to avoid inflicting unnecessary harm or death. This is not just true of the police—it is true of everyone. For example, a drunken person once tried to punch me while I was running. I easily blocked the swing (black belt and all that). I could have punched or kicked him in return, but did not do so—I could have seriously hurt him. He decided to run away into the crowd, so I continued with my run. I did what I needed to do to defend myself—any more force would have been unwarranted. I did take a chance—the person could have attacked again or pulled a knife. But, a disproportionate response made from fear would be unwarranted.
In the case of Garner, it is clear that he does resist arrest, but in a fairly minimal way—he is not actively attacking but merely trying to avoid being grabbed. Then he is put into what appears to be a chokehold and brought to the ground, which results in his death. Given the situation, it seems clear that far less force (or even more conversation) would have sufficed and Garner would most likely still be alive.
One could argue that his size was such that he presented a clear threat that required such force and his death was a surprise to the police resulting from him being more vulnerable to choking than he appeared. That is, they honestly believed they were using the proper amount force and the proper techniques and the death was just a terrible accident. Having been in the martial arts, I do know it is easy for a person to get badly hurt even when there is no intention of such harm—that is well worth considering. Like most men, I’ve been hurt (and hurt others) when just playing around at rough housing.
That said, the police are supposed to be trained properly in the use of force and they are supposed to follow the guidelines—which, in this case, expressly forbid chokeholds. They are also morally responsible to be aware of what is happening to a person they are engaging. Given what occurred in the video, it seems clear that Garner’s death was unjustified.
Overall, the pundits that are endeavoring to blame Garner for his death are in error. It is true that if he was not suspected of a crime and if he had not resisted arrest, then he would probably still be alive. But, it is also true that if the police had used proper procedures and proportional force (or tried talking more), then he would probably still be alive. Even if a person commits a crime and resists arrest, it does not follow that his death is justified.