One Year After the Death of Eric Garner, Reform Deferred

Despite protests in New York and beyond, police reform is in a dismal state.
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Mural in memory of Eric Garner at East Williamsburg in Brooklyn. (Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock)

Mural in memory of Eric Garner at East Williamsburg in Brooklyn. (Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock)

July 17, 2014: the day Eric Garner died on Staten Island.

The 43-year-old African-American father of six suffered from cardiac arrest after two police officers administered a chokehold. The crime: selling loose cigarettes. The entire incident was caught on camera, with Garner, who was unarmed, now-famously pleading "I can’t breathe." His last words would become a rallying cry for protesters several months later, after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the officer who administered the illegal hold on Garner. The decision, coming mere weeks after a Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury opted not to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown, sparked nationwide protests against police brutality. With a seemingly never-ending stream of black bodies paraded across television screens, never has America's "national conversation" on race seemed so loud and forceful.

"The world saw an African-American man in Staten Island die and people are confused, disgruntled, and angry," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared in his inaugural remarks on New Year's Day, after being sworn in for his second term. "Today, sadly, too many people are questioning if the blindfold is still intact or does the justice system now see black and white or black and blue or rich and poor."

Weeks later, during the State of the State address delivered at Empire State Plaza Convention Center, Cuomo pledged various reforms intended to bolster police accountability and mend relations with constituents. Legislation included a statewide commission on police and community relations, appropriations for body cameras, and a ban on chokeholds. "The community has to trust and respect the police and the police have to respect and trust the community," Cuomo said. "And we have to work to restore that trust and that respect."

One year after Eric Garner drew his last breath on Staten Island, little has changed in New York: of the police reforms introduced in the State Assembly and Senate, none have become law.

But one year after Eric Garner drew his last breath on Staten Island, little has changed in New York: of the police reforms introduced in the State Assembly and Senate, none have become law. In the State Assembly, the body camera pilot program remains stuck in committee, as does a bill requiring a "refresher course" in "tactical communications and cultural and community awareness" for all police officers. A measure that would have banned police chokeholds went untouched. Legislation banning racial profiling and establishing a special office to investigate police involvement in civilian deaths, both proposed by prominent Democratic assemblyman Keith Wright, seem likely to die in the Republican-controlled Senate, which has focused primarily on issues of police safety. A bill to allow the attorney general to investigate and prosecute police misconduct went down in flames in a Senate committee. Meanwhile, a proposed civilian review board continues to languish in committee. While, just a few weeks ago, Cuomo finally appointed Attorney General Eric Schneiderman special prosecutor to handle civilian deaths at the hands of police, prior legislation designed to implement a more permanent prosecutor were blocked by the Senate. Even the measly $100,000 appropriation for Cuomo’s vaunted commission lingers in—no surprise here—committee.

Americans may be rallying in the streets, but when it comes to substantive changes to the relationship between police and the communities they serve, lawmakers simply can't be bothered to take action to stem the tide of civilian deaths at the hands of police officers.

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It might be easy to chalk this up to legislative jousting in Albany, but the problem is nationwide. In Missouri, the state legislature ended its session in May after passing just one bill out of hundreds of Ferguson-related pieces of legislation, which would have covered everything from body cameras to racial profiling to cultural awareness training. "We don't have one piece of legislation that anyone here in this body can go home and say, 'Hey, we did this for Ferguson,'" Missouri Representative Clem Smith told the Associated Press. "As it was this summer ... it still is today. Nothing has changed." This, despite the fact that a recent YouGov/Economist poll revealed that a vast majority of Americans support outfitting police officers with body cameras (88 percent) and outside investigations in instances of police misconduct (74 percent). Outrage over police brutality against (primarily black) Americans simply doesn’t seem to translate into legislative action.

"What we're seeing here in New York is no different than what we've seen across the country in terms of legislative responses to movements around police violence against communities of color," says Dante Barry, executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, a national advocacy organization launched in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's death. "I don't think what you've seen in New York has been a direct result of legislators thinking about police killings of civilians, particularly black civilians, as an urgent crisis that we need to combat." (New York State Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Governor Cuomo responded with a transcript of a press conference from Schneiderman's appointment.)

America's long (and largely conservative) tradition of "law and order" politics makes police reform largely impossible unless it’s in support of police officers doing whatever it takes to "protect and serve."

Why, despite a historic wave of vocal activism and outrage, is there simply no political will to address police reform? There may be a cultural explanation: America's long (and largely conservative) tradition of "law and order" politics, given political form in the 1960s in response to the crime wave that swept the nation, makes police reform largely impossible unless it’s in support of police officers doing whatever it takes to "protect and serve."

Blame Barry Goldwater, explains Washington Post reporter Ted Gest in Crime and Politics: Big Government’s Erratic Campaign for Law and Order. The conservative Arizona senator, who accepted the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, vowed in his acceptance speech to make "enforcing law and order" and combatting "violence in the streets" the center of his campaign. While Lyndon B. Johnson easily trumped Goldwater at the ballot box, the message of a federal government bulking up local law enforcement stuck with the Democratic administration: After all, national crime jumped from 3.3 million incidents in 1960 to 7.4 million by the end of the decade, according to data compiled by the FBI, peaking in 1991 at 14.8 million incidents each year. As a result, the mantle of "law and order" fell to subsequent politicians to joust over. "Politicians competed to run the most lurid campaign ads and sponsor the most punitive laws," writes Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center's Justice program. "Racially tinged 'wedge issues' marked American politics from Richard Nixon's 'law and order' campaign' of 1968 to the 'Willie Horton' ads credited with helping George H.W. Bush win the 1988 election." To this day, being "soft on crime" can be a death sentence for a political campaign.

(Graph: The Hamilton Project)

(Graph: The Hamilton Project)

Despite a falling crime rate—one that's dropped more than 50 percent between 1991 and 2012—and a modern softening of "law and order" rhetoric, the public's fear of crime remains a strong and salient political force. A 2014 Gallup poll found that Americans consistently believe that each year brings more and more crime, both nationally and locally. And despite a dip in trust in law enforcement following the highly publicized shooting in Ferguson—and an increased sensitivity to racial issues with law enforcement among white Americans—a majority of respondents in an April 2015 YouGov/HuffPost poll claimed they have a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in their local police department and in police nationwide. We can see this implicit support all over the massive flow of military gear to local police and SWAT units following the 9/11 terrorist attacks: When in doubt, the public wants law enforcement well-armed and well-prepared to handle any violence—real or imagined.

This means that both politicians and their constituents are cowed into inaction over the very real threat of police brutality by the psychology of irrational fears, perpetuated by political rhetoric and mass media. "Fear of crime affects far more people in the United States than crime itself, and there are sound reasons for treating crime and fear of crime as distinct social problems," writes the National Criminal Justice Reference Service researcher Mark Warr, arguing that it's the media's tendency to hone in on particularly visceral incidents of violent crime—or, say, black rioters in Baltimore—that accentuates the specter of fear, allowing "law and order" politics to take hold. Distortions by the media "tend to exaggerate the frequency and the seriousness of crime," Warr writes:

In the real world, for example, crimes occur in inverse proportion to their seriousness; the more serious the crime, the more rarely it occurs. ... In news coverage of crime, however, the emphasis is on ‘newsworthiness,’ and a key element of newsworthiness is seriousness; the more serious a crime, the more likely it is to be reported.

For activists, the prevalence of a climate of fear in American communities means the legislative process will always be mired in a vision of "law and order," a vision shaped by establishment interests like police unions and corporations that stand to profit from the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. "Cops and corporations have a monopoly on who has a right to feel safe in this country," Barry tells me. "As a result, the 'law and order' mentality has shaped the criminal justice system for decades. The companies who build private prisons and manufacture surveillance cameras have deeply bought into the idea of law and order as a ideological mechanism to police and control bodies, especially black bodies."

America’s 20th-century "law and order" dogma has certainly left indelible stains on the criminal justice system: mandatory minimums that incarcerate non-violent offenders over negligible amounts of drug possession; a bloated prison system that makes America the most incarceration-happy nation on the planet; the gradual, creeping militarization of local law enforcement. But the inability of activists and community members to move the needle on police brutality, to engender a sense of communication and accountability that could improve the basic way citizens interact with the coercive agents of the state, is deeply emblematic of how "law and order" politics conquered America. And this inaction has consequences. In June, the Guardian launched The Counted, a definitive list of Americans killed by law enforcement this year. As of this writing, the death toll stands at 599; at this rate, the tally will hit 1,100 by the close of 2015.

There is some hope, of course. With the conversation on race and law enforcement loud and vigorous one year after Eric Garner's death on Staten Island, lawmakers are making baby steps. Politico reports that congressional Republicans are inching toward considering legislation on police reform following the demonstrations over the deaths of Garner, Brown, Gray, and Walter Scott, who was shot and killed while fleeing a traffic stop in South Carolina. Even Cuomo's appointment of Attorney General Schneiderman came with a renewed call from the governor for change in the relationship between police and the communities they ostensibly serve.

"When a community doesn’t have trust for the fairness of the criminal justice system it creates anarchy and we have had a series of incidents in New York that have raised that question repeatedly," Cuomo said last week. "It is a crisis of trust." By the looks of it, New York—and cities across of America—have a long way to go to mend that trust. While white politicians drag their feet in endless committee meetings, Eric Garner is still dead—and sadly, he probably won't be the last innocent black man to die at the hands of the men who swore to protect them.

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