It’s a troubling time for American police forces, and their legal system as a whole right now. A mere week after a US Grand Jury declined to indict St Louis County police officer Darren Wilson over the shooting death of unarmed black teen Mike Brown – a result which caused dismay and uproar amongst the Ferguson community, with hundreds taking to the streets of the small suburb in protest – now the same thing has happened again, with another Grand Jury declining to level charges against a New York City police officer who administered a fatal chokehold to Eric Garner, in an incident that was captured on video and subsequently went viral.
A few hours ago, the Grand Jury returned the decision of “no bill,” meaning charges would not be laid against Officer Daniel Pantaleo over the incident which occurred back in July.
Pantaleo, along with other NYPD officers, confronted the 43 year old Garner on July 17th. Officers state that Garner had been arrested in the past for selling untaxed cigarettes, and that he had been observed selling them again the previous day. Five officers approached Garner on the street and then attempted to arrest and detain him. Pantaleo placed Garner, who was an asthmatic, in a chokehold, before the other officers assisted in physically forcing him to the ground, slamming Garner’s head into the footpath.
A member of the public filmed the entire scene. Garner can clearly be heard stating “I can’t breathe” as Pantaleo maintains the chokehold. Garner then subsequently lost consciousness and paramedics were called. He was transported to a nearby hospital but later passed away. It was ruled that Garner suffered a cardiac arrest whilst being placed in custody. The video shows that officers waited seven minutes before beginning CPR treatment. The use of a chokehold has been prohibited by NYPD procedural policy since 1993.
The Grand Jury’s failure to indict, particularly given the close proximity to an extremely similar decision in Ferguson a week prior, is notable given how extremely rare that outcome is. In 2011, of 162,000 Federal Cases prosecuted in the US, Grand Juries failed to indict on only 11 occasions. Former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler once famously stated that a prosecutor could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.”
The role of a Grand Jury is not to determine innocence or guilt, rather it is to determine whether there is sufficient cause for a trail to be held – or, in other words, whether the case is worth looking into a bit further.
Given that the New York City medical examiner had ruled Garner’s death a homicide, you’d imagine that would’ve been an easy yes.
And yet, sadly, here we are.