I had the honor of appearing this morning on Democracy Now! with Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, on the depressing subject of the approaching anniversary of her father’s killing at the hands of an NYPD officer. Her family’s story is a cautionary tale.
With the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile cases still fresh in the public’s mind, this might be a good moment to reflect on what tends to happen with these cases years down the line.
In researching this subject for a book, a few things have become clear. One is that unless there’s video, or multiple witnesses, there’s usually no consequence at all for police violence, not even on the civil side. The overwhelming majority of incidents simply disappear.
For instance, New York Inspector General Phillip Eure, who oversees the NYPD, did a study of chokehold incidents in the city two years ago.
He found that between 2009 and 2014, there had been 1,082 complaints alleging 1,128 chokeholds by NYPD officers.
Of those complaints, the Civilian Complaint Review Board fully investigated only about half, or 520 total. And of those 520 complaints, the CCRB substantiated just ten.
Eure found that in nine of the ten cases he examined, the CCRB recommended the strongest possible punishment: departmental charges. But in all nine of those cases, the cop in question ended up getting off with either no punishment at all, or a maximum of five vacation days lost. And in six of the nine cases, then-commissioner Ray Kelly personally overturned the CCRB’s recommendation.
Essentially, out of more than 1,000 chokehold complaints, roughly 99 percent of the cases simply disappeared. Of the remaining 1 percent that actually made it all the way through the disciplinary process, nine out of ten ended with either no punishment or a maximum of five days’ lost vacation. Another officer died before his case could be resolved.
In five years, the department had never once really punished an officer for using a chokehold.
The Garner case might have just as easily disappeared into that grim statistical picture. Reports have surfaced that the official police account of the incident didn’t even mention a chokehold, saying only that two officers took Garner to the ground “by his arms.” Minus the famed video taken by civilian Ramsey Orta, the world might never have known what happened that day.
But even in cases where there is video and/or some other kind of indisputable evidence, these cases rarely end in a way that the families would consider just. Police officers are rarely indicted, much less convicted, and families are rarely provided with even the most basic answers. The families sometimes receive settlements, but that’s it. That’s the political calculus now: money, but no change and no reform.