Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown & Police Brutality: Are We At A Tipping Point?

As Eric Garner, the 43-year-old African American father of six, was wrestled to the hot Staten Island pavement in July for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, he would utter a string of words that would become uncannily, poetically prophetic in the firestorm now engulfing a nation.

In a strained voice, as NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo held him in an illegal chokehold, and a swarm of plainclothes and uniformed officers kneeled on his head and body, Garner said “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” again and again until he died.

Garner’s death was one of a handful so far in a domino line of unarmed African Americans killed by white police officers, and his words stand as a metaphor for communities that themselves feel stifled and scared by the chokehold of racial profiling and overbearing policing. But back in July, Garner likely didn’t foresee how his own fate would play so crucially into a much larger story.

On Wednesday, the findings of a 21-month federal investigation of Cleveland’s police force revealed that officers’ use of excessive force was not only indicative of systemic, patterned behavior, but also sanctioned by supervisors in some cases.

The announcement came amidst protests in Cleveland over the shooting of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old boy who brandished a toy gun at a park and was killed by officer Timothy Loehmann late last month. Back in 2012, Loehmann was deemed unfit for duty, and received “dismal” reviews of performance and live gun handling, according to the Guardian.

The same day, a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict Pantaleo, the NYPD officer filmed putting Eric Garner in the chokehold that killed him—nor did they charge any of the other officers explicitly involved for excessive force, regardless of video evidence that showed what looked more like Garner’s exasperated gesturing than resisting arrest.

New Yorkers took to the streets in anger, leading to 200 arrests so far. Many others took to Twitter recounting under-punished misbehavior with the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite, or the daily struggles of being African Americans with #AliveWhileBlack.

Wednesday’s startling developments come on the heels of a Ferguson grand jury’s refusal to indict officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown that ignited the initial outcry over law enforcement, deadly force, and racial bias.

There’s a clear web of unsettling threads woven across all of these stories. For one, grand juries are increasingly coming under fire for failing to uphold a sense of justice that many hoped might prevail but so far hasn’t.

But on top of that, there’s a deep pocket of concern hinging on the moments during which police carry out their perceived duty respective to the situation at hand. Increasingly, thanks to the availability of video evidence and the transparency and endless reach of the Internet, we are all able to call those moments, and indeed the tactics we observe, into question and under scrutiny. As cases that seem to riff off of one another continue to pop up, more and more, a narrative of abusive displays of power is slowly unraveling.

There’s been a great deal of concern since the death of Michael Brown over police officers’ use of deadly force, a tactic we expect them to use sparingly and responsibly. So it’s troubling to learn that Loehmann, the officer who shot Tamir Rice in Cleveland had previously been declared unfit for duty, and had suffered an emotional breakdown while training with live firearms. And just days before the Rice incident, a rookie officer in New York shot a 28-year-old black Brooklyn man police commissioner Bill Bratton later admitted was “totally innocent.”

Federal standards permit officers to use deadly force if they have “probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm…to the officer or to others.” But in light of recent cases, that definition has been called firmly into question as has the shoot to kill—not disable—mentality that’s become all too apparent. The notion that unqualified officers are given the go-ahead to mete out this type of deadly justice is frankly terrifying. But it’s been made painfully clear that firearms aren’t the only objects that can be deadly.

Many media outlets so far have reported that the chokehold that killed Garner was illegal, but since the incident, the data suggest that it’s already an all too common occurrence. A citizen-led organization tasked with investigating complaints against the NYPD released a report in October that found chokehold complaints to have increased to 219 from July 2013 to June 2014—up from the 200 per year reported for 2006-2010. The Civilian Complaint Review Board said in a statement that the “findings demonstrate that, at least from the point of view of the particular experience of the complainants, police officers continue to use choke holds and the persistence of this practice puts civilians at physical risk.”

The report also noted, alarmingly, that complaints were often not investigated, and officers were not reprimanded for using a tactic prohibited by the NYPD Patrol Guide for more than 20 years.

What all of this points to is a culture of unhealthily proactive deadly force and strong arm tactics emerging from the shadows—and a burning need for reassessment. It’s well known that African Americans garner a disproportionate amount of law enforcement’s attention. Now, studies suggest that police officers are more likely to shoot black men, and empirical evidence in recent months only back those claims up.

President Obama asked Congress to subsidize body cameras for police departments in hopes that recorded encounters might curb abuses, and while in some cases that is a likely outcome, Eric Garner’s death sticks out like a sore thumb. We have also reported that the Obama administration has only accelerated programs that increase the militarization of our police forces—something alarmed crowds in Ferguson witnessed firsthand.

The Guardian’s Washington Correspondent Paul Lewis summed up fears in Ferguson when he tweeted, “Armored personnel vehicle, SWAT officers with assault rifles hanging off side, suddenly appears out of black smoke like an image from Iraq.”

But with greater transparency, and mounting evidence signaling a need for reassessment, it seems we have nowhere to go from this point but up. And as massive protests in cities across the country continue, and as awareness of an exploding debate about the intersection of excessive police force, race relations, police militarization expands, we can only hope for the best.