by Matthew Ernst 12/11/14
As protests continue to occur in American cities, it has become obvious that there is an enormous gap between how ordinary citizens perceive police work vs. the reality of police work, as understood by the officers who perform the work on a daily basis. In the Eric Garner case from New York City, a recent poll revealed that 57% of Americans think that the officer should have been indicted. Many people want to know how an officer can choke someone, which contributes to that person’s death, and not be charged with any crime. Yet, a grand jury, that consisted of members of the general public, who after hearing all of the evidence, chose not to indict the officer.
This should be our first clue that the media does not accurately report on police incidents, thus making the general public inaccurately informed. [As an officer, I have witnessed the inaccurate reporting of police incidents on a regular basis. There are several reasons for this:
1. Police incidents are inherently secretive (for a valid reason), which results in the media not getting all of the facts and relevant information. Left with this void, many media members speculate or seek information from less-than-credible sources.
2. Police incidents are oftentimes complex and involve legal principles that officers, lawyers, and judges spend years learning about. No journalist can even begin to accurately understand these same principles after reading a police report or hearing court testimony. When faced with this reality, media members try to paraphrase, which results in inaccurate reporting.
3. Many members of the media, whether they admit it or not, have this underlying belief that behind every police incident there has to be police corruption somewhere, and they want to be the first to report it. But police work is naturally controversial and when something goes wrong, the media and politicians immediately come up with explanations such as racism, excessive use of force, poor training, etc. The reality is that officers receive more training, in a wider variety of topics, than most professions. Officers simply go where the crime is and do the best they can with the evidence they find based on their training.]
So why was there no indictment in the Eric Garner case?
NYPD Ofc. Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted because he lacked the intent to kill Eric Garner. And, most often (but not always), the single most important factor in determining whether a crime was committed was whether there was intent to commit the crime by the actor. Ofc. Pantaleo was simply trying to effect an arrest on a very large, and non-compliant person. It was obviously an arrest that resulted in consequences that Ofc. Pantaleo could not foresee, nor desired.
As an example of what can happen when a very large, non-compliant person resists arrest, let’s remember the arrest of University of Nebraska football player, Andy Christensen. Christensen, who was approximately 6’6” 300 lbs., was being placed under arrest for sexual assault when he resisted arrest. It took 7-8 officers, all on him at the same time, to get him into custody. But Christensen did not die, and he was obviously in better physical shape than Eric Garner, who had diabetes and asthma.
In watching the video of the arrest we see that the officers who initially contacted Mr. Garner, which included Ofc. Pantaleo, were very calm and professional while talking with Garner. Rather it was Garner who was irate. They did not simply run up and jump on Mr. Garner’s back and begin choking him. It appears to me that the officers were stalling for more time as they waited for additional officers to arrive before attempting to place Mr. Garner into custody. This is something that officers routinely do as it helps decrease the chance that the suspect will resist arrest and if he does resist, it minimizes the risk of injury to officers.
In addition, Ofc. Pantaleo had his arm around Mr. Garner’s neck for no more than 15 seconds. While everyone has been calling this a chokehold, it is very possible that Ofc. Pantaleo was attempting what is known as the Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint (LVNR), which many officers are trained on. To the average person, the LVNR will look like a chokehold. However, in a properly performed LVNR, pressure is applied to the sides of the neck, which can potentially cause the person to be knocked unconscious. The LVNR is not to be applied to the front of the neck, which is where someone’s windpipe could be crushed, thus resulting in a fatal injury.
But let’s remember that it is much harder to apply the LVNR during a real-life skirmish than compared to a training session. It is also very hard for someone as small as Ofc. Pantaleo to properly apply the LVNR to someone as large as Eric Garner because Ofc. Pantaleo’s arm would not be long enough to do so without also putting pressure on the front of the neck.
In addition, a small percentage of people will lose consciousness when they have the LVNR applied to them. And this is exactly the purpose of the maneuver — to help gain control of a large, non-compliant person. So when Eric Garner was saying “I can’t breathe” the officers likely figured that Garner would re-gain consciousness in a few seconds.
The medical examiner ruled choking played a part in Garner’s death but
also noted, “Garner’s acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity and hypertensive cardiovascular disease were contributing factors.” While the NYPD policy reportedly forbids the use of “chokeholds”, Ofc. Pantaleo’s use of a “chokehold” would constitute a policy violation, but not necessarily a crime.
It must be remembered that Mr. Garner had the opportunity to comply with the officers’ orders. If this simple request had occurred, Mr. Garner would be alive today and we would not be discussing this issue. But, Mr. Garner, who had been arrested 31 times since 1988, chose not to follow orders. This, in turn, led the officers to use aggressive tactics, (perhaps improperly applied), to bring a large, non-compliant person under control.
So in summary, the officers responded to the scene at the request of a business owner because Eric Garner was breaking the law. Once there, the officers were confronted with a very large, unhealthy person who had a lengthy history of breaking the law, who then refused to obey officers’ orders. This then led those same officers to use aggressive tactics in order to subdue him, which his body could not handle and he unfortunately died. Does this officer sound like someone who we should be trying to send to prison?
Officers do not want to have to use physical force to arrest someone. I have been injured, and have injured other people, in the process of making arrests.
And although I am trained and prepared to use physical force, my job is simply much easier when people are compliant. I take no satisfaction in injuring other people, but I hold no regret either because people make choices, which in turn causes me to respond in a certain way. And the reality is that very rarely does a fight with a suspect go exactly as planned. Rarely am I able to perfectly apply a technique, even if I have rehearsed it in training, when the suspect is actively resisting my efforts.
Despite what the media reports, officers are ordinary people who serve their community by enforcing the law and protecting others from crime. When someone as large and unhealthy as Mr. Garner, who has a lifetime of arrests to reflect his repeated disrespect for the law, chooses to actively resist arrest, things will not always end well. Unfortunately, too many in our society have skewed this reality to make us believe that the police are the bad guys who are racist, untrained, and out to hurt people. The reality could not be further from the truth.
Matt Ernst is a law enforcement officer and instructor in defensive tactics for the law enforcement agency he works for. Matt is also a national security and law enforcement analyst. Matt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org • (1849 views)