Feature

The Eric Garner case actually makes a pretty strong argument for police body cams

A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict an NYPD officer despite video evidence. So what?

After a grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri, decided against indicting Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August, President Obama asked for $75 million to help outfit cops nationwide with 50,000 body cameras. Brown's parents requested, along with peaceful protests, that "every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera."

The reason for cops to wear cameras on their uniforms, Brown family attorney Benjamin Crump explained at a press conferences, is so "we won't have to play this game of witnesses, mirrors, and secret grand jury proceedings." It wouldn't be a battle between the testimony of cops and eyewitnesses — there would be video evidence.

Body cameras were the rare aspect of the Brown case that a good number of police, protesters, Democrats, and Republicans could agree on. Pilot programs with police lapel cameras have shown exceedingly bright promise in places like Rialto, California and Mesa, Arizona, not just at helping mediate post-conflict disputes between cops and non-cops but, better still, preventing confrontations from occurring at all.

And then the Eric Garner case dropped.

The police in Staten Island weren't wearing body cams when one of them, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, put Garner in a chokehold that ended up proving fatal — the coroner ruled his death a homicide. But a bystander videotaped the encounter. Even with the video evidence, which appears to prove that Garner wasn't threatening the cops and that Pantaleo had used a barred chokehold on him, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the officer.

That might seem to destroy the case for outfitting police officers with cameras. Certainly, plenty of people are saying it does.

Since Obama "has made the most high-profile push for body cameras," said The Washington Post's Nia-Malika Henderson after the Garner verdict, "the timing couldn't really be worse for the White House." The White House's cop-camera proposal "if implemented, would look something like the Eric Garner case," Jon Stewart lamented on Wednesday's Daily Show. A possible "bright side" of the case, he added, is that "we're about to save ourselves a shitload of money on cop camera-vests."

But the Eric Garner case actually shows the utility of body cameras.

Sure, certain politicians and pundits have stood up for Pantaleo and backed the grand jury's decision to let him walk without a trial, but Sean Hannity and Rudy Guiliani and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) aren't great yardsticks to measure public opinion or the success of public policies.

Barring a surprise move by the Justice Department or New York authorities, Pantaleo won't ever go on trial for Garner's death, but unlike with the Michael Brown case, the court of public opinion isn't all that divided on Garner's death. Even plenty of conservatives, including many on Fox News, are arguing that the cops were clearly in the wrong with Eric Garner. Why? The video.

The grand jury in Ferguson made a defensible decision based on conflicting testimony, but we all saw what happened on Staten Island. Michael Brown may or may not have said "Hands up, don't shoot," but we all heard Eric Garner say "I can't breathe." Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) famously blamed New York's cigarette tax for Garner's death, but in that same interview he said that "it's hard not to watch that video of him saying, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe,' and not be horrified by it."

Body cams aren't a panacea, and they aren't enough. Police can forget (or "forget") to turn them on, video can get lost (or "lost"), and having walking police cameras throughout a city poses civil liberty-surveillance questions. Police could use better training and better relationships with minority communities, and police departments need better pre-hiring screening.

Also, body cameras are expensive, anywhere between $200 to $1,000 apiece, plus the cost of storing all that video. If $75 million sounds like a lot, though, New York City, with unfortunate frequency, pays families $2-3 million for wrongful police deaths. In 2013 alone, "the city paid $152 million as a result of claims of police misconduct," notes German Lopez at Vox. "If body cameras could reduce those claims by just one-fifth, the devices would pay for themselves."

That body cameras aren't perfect is no reason to write them off. They might not have saved Garner, and they didn't lead to an adjudication of his death in an open court. But it's a good thing that his death was caught on camera.

It seems hard to believe that justice was served here. I don't believe that Pantaleo meant to kill Garner, but the American judicial system has a word for that kind of fatal "oops": Manslaughter. Still, the point of the judicial system isn't just justice, it's also truth.

It may be no consolation to Eric Garner's family that Pantaleo will infamously live on in YouTube perpetuity, but at least everyone can see what happened for themselves. Body cameras are probably our best shot at getting a neutral arbiter of future confrontations between police officers and civilians.

The truth isn't nothing. Maybe justice will even catch up.

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