Essay: Crime and punishment – the Eric Garner Case

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  • Subject area(s): Criminology essays
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  • Published on: December 11, 2015
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Crime and punishment is a large part of society today as well as the most ignored. Robert Ferguson’s book, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment describes the topic of crime and punishments in the American justice system. In his explanation, Ferguson also goes into detail on the topic of the ‘Punishment Regime.’ The punishment regime can be described as a legal process to which a person in society is punished. The groups that part of the punishment regime include jurors, police officers, prosecutors, judges, and correctional officers. All the members of the punishment regime have a specific job in administrating a punishment to an individual. The main focus in this essay will be how the punishment regime has administered punishment in the case of Eric Garner. Specifically, this essay will focus on the police’s use of authority, unnecessary force, dehumanization, collaboration with the prosecution, and the jury’s bias, in the case of Eric Garner.

The Eric Garner case all started from a video that was taped by a man named Ramsey Orta, who was sitting outside his home when the incident occurred. The video began with a very distressed and irritated Eric Garner explaining to three cops on how he broke up a fight and was ‘Minding my business.’ The police in the video stand stoically just listing to Garners pleading story where he kept proclaiming his innocence. Orta also tries to narrate the situation to the audience by saying ‘this guy right here is forcibly trying to lock somebody up for breaking up a fight.’ The video eventually cuts to the police surrounding Garner which leads to him resisting arrest by saying ‘please don’t touch me.’ The situation escalates very quickly when a cop comes behind Garner and puts him into a chock hold while at the same time using his weight to bring Garner down. When Garner is brought down you can see two to three police officers’ surrounding Garner while the NYPD Officer named David Pantaleo is still holding him in a choke hold. As Garner is being forced to lie on his stomach, you can hear Garner plead to the cops that ‘I can’t breathe.’ Garner continues to reiterate that he couldn’t breathe a total of seven times as the police keep holding him down. A few minutes after Garner is brought down, the video shows a few cops examining Garner’s lifeless looking body. Another video from a different spectator shows an EMT checking if Garner still had a pulse and then giving the signal he was still breathing. A few minutes later Garner is put on a stretcher and dies on his way to the hospital on June 17, 2014.

The first topic focused on is how police authority was being questioned in the case of Eric Garner. In the beginning of the clip when the police seem to just be confronting Garner, you are able to see that one of the officers comes up to the camera and tells Orta to leave the scene, to which Orta retaliates back by saying ‘I live here.’ This was a perfect example where the police felt their authority was being questioned because despite the fact New York laws allow bystanders to videotape cops (as long as it doesn’t interfere with police duty), the cop in the video tape still told Orta to leave. This might be because the cop felt as though his authority was being put into question because by videotaping the arrest it makes it seem that there is a certain amount of distrust and disdain being put on the cops, which might make the cop feel their legitimacy as law enforcement is being questioned. So, by videotaping him the cop might feel as though his legitimacy as a police officer is being put into question since the public can use these tapes as evidence to show he might have broken the law.

The second way the police felt their authority was being questioned was when Eric Garner started resisting arrest. Whether it was right or wrong that Garner resisted arrest, the main topic that should be focused on is why the cops were arresting Garner in the first place. From what is known about the case, it was found out that the cops were confronting Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes illegally. Even though those actions were illegal, there was no evidence found of Garner even having ‘untaxed’ cigarettes in the first place and there were also witnesses there that supported Garner’s original testimony that he was breaking up a fight (Christopher para 6). The officers who felt that they had to arrest Garner would not have backed down from their claim that Garner was selling cigarettes because that would make them have to admit that they were in the wrong and by being in the wrong the officers might feel that the public will them unreliable. So, to legitimize their authority the cops had to prove the rhetoric of ‘cops are always right’ by not caring whether their actions were justified in being right or wrong but, to prove that they had the right to arrest anyone they might believe is guilty by the virtue of just being a a police officer. Ferguson goes on to describe this idea better by saying, ‘The raw context of law enforcement forces officers toward simplistic moral judgments rather than objective stands. Situations quickly become black or white, for or against’ (Ferguson 107).
The second topic for this essay will be the police’s use of unnecessary force in the case of Eric Garner. In the clip, after a few minutes of arguing between Garner and the officers, you are able to see Officer Pantaleo come behind Garner and put him into what seems to be a choke hold. As the cop applies the choke hold, he uses his weight to bring Garner down. The problem with the choke hold is that the NYPD has banned the use of choke holds since November 1993 (Friedersdorf para 2). The New York Medical Examiner also ruled Garners death a homicide saying the choke hold was the cause of Garner’s death (Nathan para 2). Despite this incriminating evidence, Officer Pantaleo who put Garner into a choke hold that eventually led to his death was still not indicted by a Staten Island grand jury despite it being an illegal maneuver. Not only that, even though the use of choke holds are illegal in NY, there has still been about 1,128 allegations over officers illegally using choke holds (Meyers para 8). So, why is it that cops are not being held accountable for their excessive force despite there being video evidence to prove guilt? The main answers lies in how our punishment regime operates. According to Ferguson, ‘Force is allowed to the police because it is the quickest way to secure obedience in a crisis. Punishment can come from them in an instant. So essential is the attribute that, ‘it is exceedingly rare that police actions involving the use of force are reviewed and judged by anyone at all” (Ferguson 105). As Ferguson suggests, ‘force’ by the police is used to secure obedience. The people who justify excessive force would also justify Pantaleo’s actions because they think the officer was justified in doing so. This is basically referred to as an appeal to authority, where the public is more willing to side with the officer over cases like this because the officer is more of a legitimate expert on problems of these kind. Therefore, it is made to seem the police are justified in their actions because they are doing it for the prosperity of the community despite it being against the law. The problem here is that by not second-guessing the actions of officers like Pantaleo, we allow this type of police injustice to become part of the system and widely accepted which gives cops leeway to be above the law that they are expected to enforce (Ferguson 98).

The third topic in Eric Garner’s case was the dehumanization of the punished. Dehumanization is the process of demonizing the enemy or making them seem less than human to justify inhumane treatment towards them. This was very prevalent in the Garner’s case because even though there was no real legitimate reason on Garner’s arrest other than he was suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes, the main supporters of officer Pantaleo or supporters of the strict punishment regime justified Garners arrest by arguing, that since the 1980s Garner has been arrested more than 30 times for assault, and possession of marijuana (Meyers para 4). This centers around the idea that people like Garner who have broken the law, should deserve punishment because they have forfeited their rights of protection by the law when they chose to stigmatize themselves as criminals for breaking the law. Therefore, any unjustified action that happens to him should be accepted because he chose to follow the criminal path (Ferguson 54). This dehumanization of criminals creates a lack of sympathy for these people because of their past actions and chooses to ignore that these individuals still may be capable of good. Through this, the public are never able to empathize with the person in order to feel sympathy towards them. As Ferguson points out, ‘The problem is not the failure of sympathy, although often enough that is the case, but in the desensitized ceremony of death that all other engage in without facing the situation’ (Ferguson 92). So, by dehumanizing people like Garner, the police are able to rationalize their inhumane actions towards them by saying that anyone who doesn’t follow this system can expect severe punishment, even if it breaks laws in the process of enforcing this strict punishment regime.

The fourth topic on this is how the police and prosecution work together to enforce the strict punishment regime. Following Eric Garners death, Officer Panteleo was taken to court in hopes of being indicted by a grand jury. But in the end, the grand jury chose not to indict Pantaleo on the charges and let him go. The interesting part about this was that the grand jury records or evidence used against Pantaleo are sealed so, we may never know what evidence was used by prosecutor Daniel Donovan and shown to the jurors. Because, Donovan never made the evidence public for possible reasons to protect the jurist identities it could also be possibly be believed that lawyers like Donovan have a conflict of interest in pursuing charges against the police for the reason that prosecutors have to rely on the police everyday for evidence. So, going after the police might go against their own interest as prosecutors (Ferguson 114).

According to the article, ‘An interpretation of the grand jury’s decision on Eric Garner’s death,’ ‘162,000 cases brought in 2010, grand juries voted against indictment just 11 times (.007 percent). Similar numbers for nonfederal cases are hard to get, but grand juries do seem generally inclined to support indictments. The big exception involves police. Again, there’s no definitive data, but various investigations have found that when police are accused of wrongdoing, getting a grand jury to support prosecution is far harder. That may be because police officers are especially trusted members of the community..’ As described in the article, prosecutors might be more reluctant to pursue charges against the police and therefore might present a less compelling case to jurors in order to not go against their own interest. Ferguson also explains this partnership, ‘Police and prosecutors control the legal process now, and no one should be surprised that the upshot has been a more punitive system. Yes, a judge must approve a plea bargain, but that informal negotiation in front of the bench or in chambers is not witnessed by the public, and much of the power to arbitrate such a finding has been stripped from the judicial system’ (Ferguson 119). Ferguson’s description here explains how these two forces have the most power in the punishment regime and because of the power they hold, it causes everything else in the strict punishment regime to fall into place which leads to the public’s support of the punisher in this punishment regime even when there is reasonable doubt that the punishment was proportional or justified.

The very last topic on this is how the jury in Eric Garners’s case largely sided with the strict punishment regime. According to the reports, the grand jury for the Eric Garners case consisted of 23 members. Out of those 23 members, 14 were white while the rest of the 9 members were non-white (Siff para 4). The fact that the jury consisted mostly of white jurists could have possibly meant that there was a bias towards a white NYPD Officer like Pantaleo. To understand this case we first need to understand the area where Garner’s death occurred in which is Staten Island. Staten Island is said to have, ‘about 470,000 residents, and some of its neighborhoods have historically been home to many civil servants, particularly firefighters and police officers. About 3,000 of the 17,000 uniformed police officers who live in New York City make their home in the borough. The borough’s population is more than 60 percent white, while blacks account for less than 10 percent, with most of them living along the borough’s North Shore’ (Mueller para 10). So, not only does Staten Island have a predominantly white population but, there is also a lot of tension between the police and blacks living there. There is a territory in Staten Island called the 120th Precinct that is recorded to have ‘Seven of the city’s top 10 most-sued officers ‘ and 14 of the city’s top 50 most-sued officers’ working there (Paddock para 3). Interestingly, this area is also where Eric Garner’s police altercation occurred. So, if Staten Island’s population already had a bias towards the law enforcement, should it be any surprise that the predominantly white grand jury would vote against indicting Officer Pantaleo? This just shows that the grand jury or what can otherwise be considered the public, sides with the strict punishment regime and strongly believes in the retributivists justice system through their support of Officer Pantaleo.

Many supporters of the strict punishment regime have tried to justify the actions of Officer Pantaleo. The supporters of the strict punishment regime would be following James Q. Wilson retributivism example because Wilson believed, ‘punishment as a form of deterrence, wants long sentences for repeat offenders no matter what the crime, ridicules most efforts of rehabilitation, demand incapacitation for serious offenders, and urges the construction of more prisons’ (Ferguson 54). By following Wilson’s strong retributivism example, these supporters of the strict punishment regime have tried to justify Pantaleo’s actions by saying not only did Garner resist arrest but he was actually put in a submission hold which led to Garner’s own obesity and asthma causing his death (Shapiro para 12). According to Pantaleo’s attorney, Stuart London, ‘He indicated he never used a chokehold’ (Prokupecz para 2). But, according to the New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner, ‘compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police’ (Nathan para 2), were the factors that could have only occurred through a choke hold and were the catalyst that caused his other natural problems to kill him. It can be assumed that Garner would not have died if the choke hold was not used. So, under no circumstances was officer Pantaleo supposed to use choke hold, yet he did and evaded his punishment. This demonstrated the beliefs help the strict punishment regime supporters have are also heavily supported by the public because if they were not supported then Officer Pantaleo would certainly have been indicted. By the public siding with the punishment regime and the retributivistism form of justice, the system may take longer and harder to change and not focus on rehabilitation to create a society where ‘the greatest happiness shared among the greatest numbers’ (Ferguson 39). Rather than focusing on how we should enforce the punishment regime and retributivism, we should focus on making punishment regime more rehabilitation focused so then we could actually change people to possibly function in society. We should also take into account the role of punishers and by holding them responsible for their actions to form a more just and fair punishment regime.

This continued acceptance of a strict and unforgiving punishment regime is one of the most important yet unknown problems that American society might be facing today. This continued acceptance of this strict punishment regime and the injustices that come along with it will make our society more focused on making punishment more retributivisitism than on rehabilitation. Not only that, but we as a society will continue to stigmatize the punished as just lesser beings and therefore lose our humanity and compassion that makes us the human beings we are. The steps on dismantling this strict punishment regime is making each job in the punishment regime more accountable for their actions so there is not a distribution of responsibility. By taking responsibility in each role has in the punishment regime then one can possibly feel a sense of responsibility that each one has in making this a morally just society where the law can be possibly better interpreted for more proportional punishment. Not only does the system have to change but, we as a society need to stop being so oblivious or ignorant to this strict punishment regime by allowing its injustice to continue. We as human beings have a moral responsibility to try to regulate this punishment system so that it can represent the true and just society we can possibly be (Ferguson 16). With all of these factors working together then can we truly possible bring change. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, ‘The world suffers not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people.’

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