A Philosopher's Blog

Thoughts on the Death of Eric Garner

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on December 8, 2014

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.


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  1. T. J. Babson said, on December 8, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Clearly the police used excessive force against a man who posed no danger to anyone.

    • WTP said, on December 8, 2014 at 1:42 pm

      Well, at least no danger at that time to anyone who wasn’t a police officer and attempting to enforce a ridiculous law. Though he did have over 30 arrests in his adult life including for assault. Let’s also keep in mind that officer was not acting on his own and was even under the direct supervision of his superior (a black female sergeant, not that such is relevant at all). Seems someone is being made a scapegoat for NYC authorities:


      Even as a white guy, I find the following advice from Chris Rock very useful. I have seen other white guys I know have a real bad day because they apparently were totally unaware of their options. I have also encountered the occasional a-hole cop myself in which this advice was helpful. Even though I hadn’t even seen this video at the time so how I knew how to behave is a bit of a mystery…

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 8, 2014 at 2:01 pm

        Excellent. Two thumbs up!

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 8, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    Garner was resisting arrest.

    Not obeying police orders to surrender and failing to cooperate with police is resisting arrest and failure to obey.

    Garner wasn’t assaulting an officer while resisting arrest and failing to obey…. but he was resisting arrest and failing to obey.

    Cause and effect.

    The cause was Garner’s criminal activity, failure to obey, and resisting arrest.

    The effect was police tactics used to arrest by force a subject who was failing to obey and resisting arrest.

    The police aren’t walking up to random black men and killing them for no reason. These black men are bringing the police on themselves by their bad behavior.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 8, 2014 at 5:16 pm

      Resisting legitimate arrest does morally justify the police in using force, but it is not a ticket for unlimited use of force. The force still needs to be proportional. One moral duty of a law enforcement officer is to ensure that the alleged criminal is captured alive and thus able to be tried in a court of law, rather than on the court of the street. An officer also has a duty to protect himself and others, which can justify the use of lethal force.

      In the Garner case, the force seems to be excessive. Garner did not appear to present a threat of imminent harm to the police or others. He most likely could have been arrested with far less force or even without force (though this might be wishful thinking).

      No, the police generally do not go looking to kill people. But being a criminal is not sufficient to warrant death on the street. Being suspected of a crime certainly isn’t.

      • WTP said, on December 8, 2014 at 5:42 pm

        The force only “seems to be excessive” because the guy died. If he hadn’t died we wouldn’t be talking about this. Do you propose that the cop thought he would likely be killing the man? You’ve never been a cop and never had to physically take into custody a 300 pound man.

        Somebody turn on the Magus Beacon.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 9, 2014 at 3:31 pm

        Monday morning armchair quarterbacking with the benefit of hindsight.

        Once it became evident, by Garner’s words and actions, that Garner wasn’t going to tolerate being arrested, the police had to decide how this big angry man was going to go down… and go down he was… one way or another.

        I have a friend who is a cop. He also has a philosophy degree. He told me once about how a big man (like Garner) was refusing to cooperate and what he did to arrest him. He and another cop were standing with the man on the front porch of his house and my friend simply knocked him off the porch when the man wasn’t paying attention. Once he was on the ground he and the other cop handcuffed him.

        There are many things those NYC cops could have done differently. But they were well within their rights to do what they did to apprehend a large uncooperative subject.

        The late Eric Garner has only himself to blame.

        I’ve been arrested many times and I’m still here. Why? Because I always cooperate and do as I’m told.

        Eric Garner’s death was a result of his bad behavior… just as Michael Browns’s death was… just as Tamir Rice’s death was… just as Trayvon Martin’s death was. Do you see a pattern here?

        • WTP said, on December 9, 2014 at 3:52 pm

          Damn, AJ…Haven’t agreed with you this much in…idunno, ever? But the Tamir Rice case, whatever Rice’s personal situation was, ended the way it did mostly because Timothy Loehmann was a bad cop. Not necessarily bad as in evil, though can’t say for sure, but certainly bad as in not qualified to do the job. There were many warning signs even at his prior job in Independence, OH. Seems like he never should have been on even that force to begin with, but to their credit they got rid of him ASAP. How Cleveland would have hired such a poor candidate is a mystery. Unless of course police work has gotten so restrictive and dangerous due to ROE, or however it’s termed in civilian police world, that they had to fill the job with someone. Doubt this latter thought as the liability side for the city would seem to be way too high for them to consciously make that choice with full knowledge. Bur perhaps this is a sign of things to come, at least in major cities. Though coming to a theater near you soon, I’m sure.

    • T. J. Babson said, on December 8, 2014 at 5:17 pm

      Agree, but still think the police used excessive force.

      Check out the T-shirts cops wear and tell me what you think:


      • WTP said, on December 9, 2014 at 4:01 pm

        Well, don’t see a problem whatsoever with the first shirt with the Hemingway quote. Hunt criminals is what they do. Hence “manhunt”. To make an issue of that is being way too PC. Which becomes the context in which I view my perspective of the issues with the other shirts. Are they insensitive? Yes, most of the others are in all context, and some without context. But what is the general context? Criminals are the enemy of the police. Police round up criminals and suspects. Life isn’t all nice and clean like an episode of Law & Order. Good luck finding enough men who are willing to do that job but not allowed to vent their frustrations a bit with a lousy tee shirt.

      • WTP said, on December 9, 2014 at 5:17 pm

        To make a comparison, a year or so ago it was quite popular in software development cube farms to see a poster with a picture of that Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man In The World” poster with the caption “I don’t always test my code, but when I do I do it in production”. Obviously it’s a self-deprecating joke and no one really approaches their job that way. I think in some context we can grant cops a little room. Again, not excusing the more egregious examples.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on December 8, 2014 at 7:04 pm

    The Diplomad nails it again:

    My thoughts on the Ferguson case are quite clear. I think Michael Brown was a giant thug–who happened to be black–who had robbed a convenience store, assaulted the Asian owner of that store, and then went on to assault a cop–who happened to be white–and try to take his gun. Brown paid for his arrogant and brutal stupidity with his life. The grand jury acted correctly in refusing to indict police officer Wilson despite the enormous pressure brought to bear by extrajudicial actors such as the Democrat-led lynch mob in the streets, the ever-more disgraceful Attorney General, our completely hopeless President, and the echo-chamber mass media. The system worked.

    I now turn to the Eric Garner case in New York. I am not sure that the system worked in that case. According to the press–and that’s all the info I have–we have a man by the name of Eric Garner, who happened to be black, killed in the process of being arrested by a gaggle of NYPD reenacting Swift’s Lilliputians tying down Gulliver.

    You can see in the video that Garner, a very large man, is being wrestled to the sidewalk by several much smaller cops, one of whom has a hold on his neck. I don’t know if it was technically a “chokehold,” but it did consist of the cop’s arm across Garner’s neck. He falls and you can hear him gasp, “I can’t breathe!” Apparently his last words or close to them. It is also not clear that Garner was resisting arrest. I acknowledge that different people can look at the video and reach different conclusions; I, however, am not convinced that he was resisting. To me, he looked confused and uncertain as to what the cops wanted him to do.

    What bothers me a great deal is that Garner had not robbed or assaulted anybody, much less an armed cop. He was neither Michael Brown nor that other thug, Trayvon Martin. His crime? Selling loose cigarettes to passers-by, thereby, depriving the city of a few cents of tax revenue. He died for selling loose cigarettes; he died for not paying a few cents in taxes to the Progressive New York City Leviathan cum Tony Soprano.

    Garner was a victim of progressivism’s lethality, and shared that fate with millions of other persons around the world. That NYC, my old home town, can afford to send at least eight or nine vastly overpaid and over-equipped cops to bust and kill a guy for selling cigarettes tells us all we need to know about the state of progressive governance in our horribly misled, once great, and former Republic.


    • WTP said, on December 9, 2014 at 5:12 pm

      I agree with that. But as I said, I think the ONE cop was set up to take the TOTAL fall for what is at base is a bad policy. The cops are tasked to enforce the law. Bad things can happen in the process, which is why we need to keep the points of contact (laws) between government and citizens to a minimum. This is in line with a general engineering principle I believe I referred to here a couple years ago in regard to Space Shuttle design.

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 9, 2014 at 10:21 pm

        One has to wonder why 8-9 cops were needed to arrest a guy selling loose cigarettes. What gives with that?

        • wtp said, on December 9, 2014 at 11:34 pm

          You’re conflating two issues. What they are arresting him for is irrelevant as to how many cops were needed. What is relevant is the likelyhood that the suspect will resist arrest, combined with the ability and degree to which you have reason to suspect he will resist. Or more accurately in the case of a sweep, which I believe this was, the ability and degree to which you suspect the worst, nastiest suspect will resist.

          The loose cigarettes part isn’t the cops fault, it’s the citizens of the jurisdiction who are responsible for that.

          • TJB said, on December 10, 2014 at 9:41 am

            So you think they had a sweep to grab guys selling loose cigs?

            • wtp said, on December 10, 2014 at 9:50 pm

              Not sure where I read it and googles with the word “sweep” in it bring back a lot of “protesters sweep…”, but I’m fairly certain I had read that this was a sweep either to enforce the cigarette thing due to lost tax revenue or it was one of those low-level crime sweeps to find harder crime guys with outstanding warrants. I’m pretty damn sure they didn’t gather up a posse to get just this one guy…unless he had some badass outstanding warrents. But don’t recall seeing anything about that.

            • TJB said, on December 10, 2014 at 10:10 pm

              Have you read that a black female was the ranking officer on site? Also that Garner died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 11, 2014 at 10:23 am

              I did. But what do those two facts entail?

            • wtp said, on December 10, 2014 at 10:30 pm

              Yep. But who knows what to believe anymore?

        • wtp said, on December 9, 2014 at 11:42 pm

          Let me ask you this as well, TJ…have you ever been in an altercation one on four or five?

          • TJB said, on December 10, 2014 at 9:40 am

            No, can’t say that I have.

            • WTP said, on December 10, 2014 at 10:01 am

              Freshman year dorm rat life. We had a bit of a hazing ritual when a guy had a birthday. The first guy just got thrown in the lake. As the semester went on, each birthday had to one-up the previous one. I’m a big guy at 6’4″ and at the time weighed 190 lbs. Strong and mentally tough, but not especially much of a fighter. I’m more of an endurance guy than fast with my fists. I’m quite certain at least half a dozen guys on my floor could have taken me in a one-on-one fight with little trouble. But a dozen or so, including the toughest, making their best tag-team effort never got me out of the door. Now the behavior in an arrest is somewhat similar, though more aggressive force can be used by police than a few guys in a dorm would do use on a friend. But still, I was able to resist a much larger force, defensively, than their offense combined with a defined objective could muster.

              One thing I’ve seen very little discussion of, why did the police not taser Eric Garner? I suspect they are not issued or only available to restricted forces. Possibly due to the “Don’t taser me, bro” outrages. I believe that Garner would be alive today and out on bail or parole if the police had been able to taser him instead of a physical take down.

          • TJB said, on December 10, 2014 at 9:44 am

            Actually once, in a McDonalds, a group of guys hassled me, but it ended without serious incident. I do remember that not one person attempted to help, and all the McDonalds staff suddenly disappeared.

            • WTP said, on December 10, 2014 at 10:04 am

              That’s quite typical. No one wants to get involved, possibly because they’re afraid of getting sued. But I think that’s just an excuse for cowardice. Something similar happens even in the domain of ideas.

  4. nailheadtom said, on December 8, 2014 at 11:17 pm

    It’s very sad that both the Garner and Brown incidents have received so much more attention than the many affairs involving genuinely evil behavior by law enforcement. A conspiracy theorist might surmise that these two cases, both resolved in favor of the police, are an effort to actually legitimize their lethal operations and even give them a more powerful role in society.

    First of all, there’s no denying that mentally and emotionally unqualified people literally flock to the law enforcement profession, if indeed it can be called a profession. A police position is also a great advantage for a criminal. That’s why internal affairs sections of police departments are always so busy. One policy that should have been adopted a long time ago is to forbid any member of law enforcement to have in their system drugs or alcohol at any time. This should be enforced by 24/7 random testing by an independent agency. The idea of drunk or stoned cops wandering around with guns in high-powered vehicles is truly frightening. We don’t allow airline pilots, railroad engineers, etc. to use drugs and alcohol, why should we permit heavily armed cops to do it? Since they’re subject to be called to duty at any time, there should be zero tolerance. This cop was probably drunk when he ruined another person’s life: http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2013/07/bad-cop-david-clifford-will-serve-2.html

    “In general, being a criminal does change a person’s status and does justify the police taking action against the person.”

    A person doesn’t become a criminal until they’ve been convicted of a crime. Prior to that, they’re a suspect or maybe just a citizen. Even if they have been previously convicted, that doesn’t have any bearing on a current arrest. A ten-time loser has the same rights as anyone else, until he’s convicted. That’s when his priors come into play in sentencing.

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 9, 2014 at 8:33 pm

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