By Lauren Victoria Burke
“I can’t believe that in the 21st century in the United States of America, we can’t get a simple indictment for a murder of a man that was caught on videotape,” said New York Congresswoman Yvette Clarke hours after the news of a Staten Island grand jury failing to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Pantaleo, a New York City cop, has two lawsuits against him. One was settled by the city of New York. The other is still pending. Pantaleo strangled 48-year-old Eric Garner to death on July 17, 2014, less than a month before a White Ferguson Police Officer shot teenager Michael Brown to death.
But in Garner’s case it was all on video.
On Dec.1, President Obama asked Congress to approve $263 million for police body cameras and training. The $75 million for 50,000 body cameras for police has been a primary focus of what many hope is a solution to police brutality – or at least a tool that will make it easier to prosecute police involved in misconduct.
But with a partisan fight under way over the president’s immigration executive order, there’s a real question about whether Congress will take action on the his proposal. But the bigger question is: Will video matter? If a cop can’t be indicted for choking a man to death on a city street, then under what circumstances can a cop be indicted?
Garner was begging for his life and said 11 times, “I can’t breathe” when Pantaleo held him in a choke hold that even New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton called “disturbing” and a violation of police procedure. And even with all of it caught on video, there was no indictment.
Several elected officials are focusing on the question of whether cameras are the solution.
“What good is a body camera? A body camera is supposed to be utilized so you can see what facts took place. So in effect we had a body camera here; we see it all,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).
“It brings into question whether body cameras will make any difference. The whole incident was on camera, but if prosecutors mishandled the presentation of the charges to the grand jury, you come up with no indictment,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). “Given what’s happened in Ferguson and the tenor of where I see a lot of people in this country, I’m not surprised” at the outcome.
“When you have an apparent felonious action on videotape, someone engaging in an illegal choke hold that causes someone’s death, it’s very difficult to understand how there’s not an indictment, and not at least probable cause,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).
The timing of the grand jury non-indictment and the body-camera issue could not be more relevant. Not only did President Obama focus on the issue on December 1, but body cameras will soon be in widespread use by the largest police department in the country. Starting over the weekend, 50 NYPD officers began wearing body cameras. The program is then expected to expand to 35,000 officers after a three-month trial period.
Body cameras for the New York City Police Department came as the result of a judicial mandate stemming from a lawsuit over the city’s massive stop-and-frisk program targeting young African-American and Latino men for more than a decade. This follows trial programs in several police departments that have instituted the use of body cameras, with some positive results.
One of the ironies of the Eric Garner case is that he was killed by a New York City Police Officer during a time of historically low crime in New York City. After a decade of listening to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly drone on about how stop-and-frisk lowered crime, recent crime stats showed anther decrease in crime in 2014. Even with almost no stop-and-frisk after Mayor Bill De Blasio became mayor, crime in New York continued to go down.
Even though technology and the prevalence of mobile phones have opened a window on day-to-day police activity, another piece of the puzzle that leads to cops’ actually being held accountable for their actions is missing. Because of the often close relationships between prosecutors and police, indictments are hard to get, even with video evidence.
“Local prosecutors should not be presenting in police-related deaths. Prosecutors and police are bedfellows, they’re buddies,” said attorney Midwin Charles on “NewsOne Now with Roland Martin” on December 4.
America leads industrialized nations in police killings. An average of more than 400 people a year are killed at the hands of police.
Right now members of Congress, specifically members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are strategizing in an effort to figure out what to do next after two weeks of frustrating news in Garner’s case and the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo. Many are angry.
“I’m struggling because I’m also the father of two African-American boys, and I don’t know what to say to them about what’s happening in this country right now,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).
Lauren Victoria Burke is freelance writer and creator of the blog Crewof42.com, which covers African American members of Congress. She Burke appears regularly on “NewsOneNow with Roland Martin” and on WHUR FM, 900 AM WURD. She worked previously at USA Today and ABC News. She can be reached through her website, laurenvictoriaburke.com, or Twitter @Crewof42 or by e-mail at LBurke007@gmail.com.