No indictment in chokehold case: Independent prosecutors needed

When it comes to police misconduct and police killing of civilians, it’s time to break the symbiotic relationship between local prosecutors and local police.

The video in the Eric Garner case was pretty shocking: A group of New York City police threw Garner to the ground and put him in a chokehold, a move banned by the NYC police in 1993. Garner didn’t struggle against them; he put his hands up. But the other thing he wasn’t doing was breathing. Eleven times, he told police he couldn’t breathe, and he died. The medical examiner ruled that his death was a homicide, caused by a chokehold. Yet there’s no indictment of officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose arm is clearly shown across Garner’s throat.

As the country awaited the indictment decision on the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo., experts, law enforcement officials, reporters, prosecutors, defense attorneys — just about anyone with any kind of expertise in the matter — stressed that it’s very hard to indict a police officer in a civilian killing in the line of duty. But I never understood why until I watched an interview with a former prosecutor who made an interesting point.

Prosecutors have one job to do — to prosecute criminals. To do that, they need the help of the police. The two bodies go hand in hand and depend on each other for those prosecutions. Whether it’s a simple charge or an indictment by a grand jury, those prosecutors need police for testimony and evidence to build a case and to convict.

The old line about “you can indict a ham sandwich” may be true, but only if the prosecutor wants to go after that sandwich. The prosecutor controls what goes before a grand jury, what questions get asked, what witnesses are called. It was true in the Michael Brown case and it was true in the Eric Garner case.

The system is broken. ALL incidents involving police killings of civilians must be handled at the federal level, with an independent federal prosecutor. That’s the only way any justice will be done. A local prosecutor, relying on that symbiotic relationship with police, is not gong to allow an indictment. It’s just not going to happen. We saw it in Ferguson, and now we saw it in New York City.

Body cameras are a must for police across the country. But incontrovertible evidence showed what happened to Garner — he was killed in a chokehold by Pantaleo, and there was still no indictment.

Some now question spending the money for body cameras — after all, if video didn’t help Eric Garner, who would it help? — but knowing that they are on camera will affect the behavior of police officers.

In Illinois, when President Obama was still a state senator, he sponsored a successful bill requiring all police interrogations to be videotaped. At first the police balked. Eventually, they saw that it would help them as much as it would help suspects, so they backed the legislation.

Now police must stay in line during interrogations — no torture, as was the case of a Chicago detective unit led by former Chicago Detective Jon Burge for 20 years. The city of Chicago had to pay millions in damages to those tortured under Burge’s direction, and many convictions had to be thrown out. Police are protected as well as suspects, because there can be no false accusations from suspects, either.

Cops seem to be incapable of thinking ill of a fellow cop. They think they are above the law. Listen to interviews by police about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases — it’s amazing what is coming out of their mouths. If you go on a police message board, you see comments that are truly disgusting, disparaging Garner as “Fatso.” Others are filled with racial epithets. These are the guys who are supposed to serve and protect?

I agree with U.S. Attorney General that the majority of police in this country are doing their jobs well — they do put their lives on the line. But that doesn’t mean they have to reflexively defend the bad apples with the “shoot first” (or in this case, choke first) mentality.

Besides, we don’t need to raise the status of any public servant to the level of saint. You know what other groups of people “put their lives on the line”? Teachers. Firefighters. Health workers. People who run food pantries and health care clinics in poor neighborhoods. If we want to nominate everyday saints, I suggest starting with the health care workers traveling to Africa to care for Ebola victims.

One comment on a political blog suggested it was time to bring back the Black Panthers to patrol communities of color — that police could not be trusted. I don’t think that’s the answer. But in an interesting coincidence, today (Dec. 4) is the 45th anniversary of the death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was shot and killed in a controversial police raid in his apartment on Chicago’s west side. The details are brutal: Hampton was drugged by an FBI informant; police fired nearly 100 bullets and the Black Panthers fired one, accidentally; those who survived were dragged to the street and charged with (you guessed it) resisting arrest and attempted murder of a police officer. The unbelievable details can be found by clicking on the “Political murder of the day” on this website. (If you’re reading this in subsequent days, scroll down — older murders are available there for at least a week.)

Incredibly, Rep. Peter King (R, N.Y.) blamed Garner for his own death. “If he had not had asthma, and a heart condition, and was so obese, he would not have died from this,” King said. Right. Let’s blame the black guy because he’s overweight.

Of course race plays a major part. Brown and Garner are both consistently described as “big men” — the big, scary black man. Remember that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson referred to fellow human being Michael Brown as an “it” — “It was like a demon,” he told the grand jury about why he shot and killed Brown. “Black lives matter” has replaced “Hands up, don’t shoot” as the mantra of protestors. It’s time that police officers with the “shoot first” mentality learned that lesson.

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