clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why wasn't the cop who killed Eric Garner indicted?

Mourners watch as Eric Garner's coffin is carried out of Bethel Baptist Church
Mourners watch as Eric Garner's coffin is carried out of Bethel Baptist Church
(Julia Xanthos-POOL/Getty Images)

Why was there no indictment in the Eric Garner case? Two words: Police credibility. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that we have two different standards for guilt in the American criminal justice system: civilians get "beyond a reasonable doubt." Police get "beyond any possible doubt, no matter how implausible it may seem."

There is video of Garner's death. It shows NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo wrapping his arm around Garner's neck, and then throwing his entire body weight against it until Garner fell to the ground, choking and gasping that he could not breathe. The NYPD placed an absolute ban on the use of chokeholds in 1993, on the grounds that the technique was too dangerous to use in any circumstance. A New York medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. But that wasn't enough for the grand jury, because Pantaleo told a different story.

Pantaleo spoke before the grand jury for nearly two hours — itself a privilege that most defendants are not afforded. According to the New York Times, Pantaleo testified that he didn’t use a chokehold, but a "wrestling move." Pantaleo also testified that he got off of Garner "as quick as he could." (The video shows him and other NYPD officers piled on top of Garner even after he had fallen to the ground. One officer knelt on Garner's head as he gasped for breath.)

But when faced with the question "who are you gonna believe — the cop, or your own eyes?" the grand jury decided that the answer was "the cop." To them, his testimony outweighed the videos, as well as the testimony of 22 civilian witnesses.

That is part of a pattern of juries placing tremendous faith in the credibility of police testimony. But juries are hardly anomalous: as a society, we generally tend to believe cops. A version of that tendency can be seen in the many people who insist that the killing of Eric Garner was very different from the killing of Michael Brown. The Federalist's Sean Davis said that Brown's killing was "murky and muddled at best," but expressed shock at the Staten Island grand jury decision because "Garner’s completely unnecessary death was captured on video." Red State's Leon Wolf urged his readers to "forget Ferguson," with its lack of video evidence, but that Garner "was subjected to clearly excessive force." And Mother Jones's Kevin Drum argued that in Ferguson, the evidence was "just too inconsistent," but that there was "no excuse" for the grand jury's failure to send Pantaleo to trial for killing Garner.

But the killings of Garner and Brown were not wildly different. In both cases, an unarmed black man was killed on a city street by an armed police officer. In both cases, eyewitnesses said that the force seemed unnecessary, while the officer involved claimed he had no choice. A main distinction is that in Garner's case, there was video of what happened, relieving observers of some of the burden of deciding whether to believe the officer's story or bystanders. But that attitude still implies a presumption that police are to be believed. As steps towards fairness go, "vids or it didn't happen" is a very small and grudging one.

And that's a problem, because the widespread presumption of police officers' truthfulness eviscerates the legal standards that are supposed to restrict cops’ use of force. Police officers are only allowed to use deadly force to protect themselves or others, or to prevent a fleeing felon. But that standard turns on whether the officer reasonably believed that the force was necessary, which is at heart a question of the officer's credibility. If juries presume that police officers are always credible, that's effectively blanket permission for police to use force, even deadly force, at any time.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.