Eric Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” On May 25, George Floyd, a black resident of Minneapolis, died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. Some of Floyd’s last words were “I can’t breathe.”
This event marked yet another appalling viral bystander recording of an unarmed black man’s needless and unconscionable death. The officers involved were fired hours after the video was shared online. Calls for justice are widespread. Police reform is desperately needed.
Eric Garner died on July 17, 2014 after former NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a prohibited chokehold. The video of the confrontation with Garner quickly went viral when it was published online by the New York Daily News six hours after his death. The bystander recording of Garner’s death was the first of an influx of recordings of African-American men involved in confrontations with white police officers which have brought national attention to the epidemic of police violence and white supremacy in the United States. Pantaleo was fired five years later.
What insight can we gain from Garner’s death as we await the inevitable inquiry into the killing of George Floyd?
First, body cameras are not a panacea. It has been widely suggested that Garner’s death could have been avoided if Pantaleo were wearing a body camera, as the video recorder may have influenced the officer’s decision-making. This kind of speculation does not take into account the fact that Pantaleo was fully aware that he was being recorded, as were the Minneapolis police officers, all of whom were also wearing body cameras.
However, as we have seen, bystander recordings can be crucial. Citizens should continue recording police and we must ensure that recording officers remains a lawful practice.
Prior to the circulation of the bystander recording of the confrontation with Garner, an internal NYPD document concerning Garner’s death prepared for senior police commanders reportedly made no reference of any chokehold or contact with Garner’s neck. The bystander recording was crucial in countering the police narrative of the incident.
Second, radical reform is needed in lieu of renewed calls for training. The actions of the Minneapolis officers involved in Floyd’s killing were not the result of rogue individuals or so-called “bad apples,” but rather, an inherent feature of modern policing in the US.
The literature on this issue is clear: the use of force is a basic feature of police work. Reports indicated that two of the Minneapolis police officers involved in the May 25 incident were previously investigated for use of force incidents. This is not altogether surprising. Calls for new training and use of force protocols are sure to follow, but this is not enough. More black people and racialized folks in the US will continue to die at the hands of police.
Consider that in the weeks after Garner’s death, the NYPD announced a “retraining” of its officers in dealing with “uncooperative persons.” In examining this announcement, one can easily notice the effort to frame examples of excessive force as the fault only of individual officers, thus deflecting any warranted criticisms against the police department or the institution of policing itself. This public relations rhetoric serves to undermine the possibility of systemic changes to policing.
Pantaleo’s lawyer and the police union each maintained that he had used a “take-down” move that he learned in the police academy since “chokeholds” were prohibited by NYPD policy. We need to remain vigilant in keeping our attention and focus on the use of force as a central feature of policing, and not allow acts of violence to be passed off as anomalies or just the individual actions of officers.
Indeed, police violence must be understood as a public health issue. As recently as last year, a study conducted by a team of researchers from Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, and Washington University in St. Louis found that fatal police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in America.
Lastly, what remains the core issue is who gets to interpret the use of force by police in a court of law. In the case of Garner’s death, Pantaleo—who, at the time, was still employed by the NYPD—was provided the opportunity to personally narrate the videos (there were three) of his confrontation with Garner as they were shown to a grand jury. The grand jury subsequently failed to bring charges against Pantaleo for Garner’s death.
Whether such practices are consistent with the ethos of due process should remain a part of the conversation and reform in the pursuit of justice in the names of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and far too many others.
Reframing police violence as a public health crisis is a crucial first step on the path toward necessary police reform that moves away from use of force tactics, which has the obvious potential to save lives, especially those of black men. Citizens must take action immediately to avoid any further unnecessary and cruel deaths at the hands of police.
Christopher J. Schneider is a Professor of Sociology at Brandon University and the author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media (Lexington Books, 2016). He has written or collaborated on five books and has published dozens of scholarly articles, book chapters, and essays. Visit his personal website here, or follow him on Twitter @sundaysociology.