The Ugly Idea That Killed Eric Garner

By Kai Wright Dec 04, 2014

Jewell Miller is the mother of Eric Garner’s infant daughter. Yesterday, she spoke with a New York Times reporter as she pushed her 7-month-old girl around the scene of the two crimes–Garner’s alleged* trespass of New York tax law, and the New York Police Department’s crime against humanity. "Again the system has failed us," Miller told the reporter. "How? How? I don’t know how." But she did know how, and so she answered herself. "I think he has done the job that he was trained to do," she said of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold ended Garner’s life, "and I think he did a good job–to kill us."

It’s unfair to say NYPD officers are trained to kill black people. But Miller isn’t using hyperbole when she says Pantaleo was doing his job and doing it well when he encountered Garner on July 17. For nearly a generation, it has been NYPD’s explicit policy to marshal a big response to small things, to treat the illegal distribution of 75 cent loosies with the gravity of a violent felony. This approach has been so widely recreated in cities around the country that broken windows policing, as it’s called, is now synonymous with effective policing. And it is this noxious, conventional wisdom that a grand jury failed to indict yesterday.

Officer Pantaleo may or may not ultimately be held accountable for his crime–by the department, by the feds or by the heavens. Whatever happens, justice does not lie in his fate. Justice will be found in the degree to which Mayor Bill de Blasio lives into the words he spoke following the grand jury announcement.

"There is a momentum for change that will be felt in every neighborhood," de Blasio insisted, ticking off reforms already underway–a pilot program for body cams on cops, some decriminalization of marijuana possession, new limits on stop-and-frisk. But in considering reform, it’s instructive to revisit the circumstances that led Pantaleo to grab Garner around the neck and drag him to the ground.

As WNYC’s Robert Lewis reported back in September, Pantaleo is a poster boy for broken windows policing. He’s been on the force since 2007, and in that time records show him as the arresting officer in 259 criminal court cases. They are overwhelmingly for minor crimes like pot possession; just 24 of them were for felonies. "Two-thirds of Pantaleo’s cases that made it to court ended with a dismissal or a guilty plea to a disorderly conduct violation," Lewis reported, "which is a little more serious than a speeding ticket. He is one of the most active cops on Staten Island."

This is what broken windows cops are supposed to do. They beef up their ranks in priority neighborhoods and get in folks’ faces over anything and everything. I’ve lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, for about a decade. Our neighborhood has for many years been on NYPD’s list of target spots for broken windows–"impact zones," as they’re called. It’s unexceptional here to swap stories of run-ins with bizarrely unreasonable cops–telling us stop lingering by the subway entrance, to get out of the street, to move along. Eric Garner’s frustrated response to that constant harassment will appear routine to anyone who’s lived in neighborhoods like ours. He’d just broken up a fight, and now here was NYPD in his face, again. "Every time you see me you wanna arrest me," Garner snapped. "I’m tired of it. It stops today."

NYPD brass had ordered the 120th precinct to make a priority out of interrupting the sale of untaxed cigarettes, according to a Daily News report just after Garner’s death. It was a recurring "quality-of-life" issue, a spokesperson told the paper. Garner had been arrested for violating New Yorkers’ quality of life in this way eight times. So Pantaleo and his colleagues were doing their job and doing it well. And when Garner pushed back on their outsized response to his petty alleged crime, they escalated further. After all, that is the oxymoronic premise of broken windows policing: the cops should escalate things in order to keep things under control, and that will keep us all safe.

The contradictions within this idea beg unpleasant questions: Who is us and what is danger? Commissioner Bill Bratton gave some indication of the us and them of New York City crime and safety not long after he took the department’s helm. In a March speech at the Waldorf-Astoria, Bratton reassured business leaders that he’d stand firm behind broken windows policing.

"We will be focusing on ensuring that aggressive begging and squeegee pests, all those activities that create fear and destroy neighborhoods, graffiti, all those seemingly minor things that were so much in evidence in the ’80s and early ’90s here, don’t have the chance to come back." He vowed a late-night tour of the subway with criminologist George Kelling, one of the intellectual fathers of broken windows. "George and I are going to go out, kind of like old times for us, riding the rails and getting a sense." But don’t worry, he insisted, their Old West posse would treat New York City’s terrifying "pests"–also known as poor people–"respectfully" and "compassionately."

Eleven times Eric Garner told the cops huddled around him that he couldn’t breathe. His unanswered pleas for respect and compassion echo in the canyon that separates the conceptual niceties of broken windows from its ugly, grinding reality.

In the hours following the grand jury announcement, the idea of body cams for cops morphed quickly from a hopeful reform to a Twitter punchline. After all, the whole incident here was recorded and the whole world has seen it. Still, maybe body cams will bring some marginal reforms; the record’s mixed in jurisdictions where they’ve been deployed. But the real killer here isn’t in the margins. It’s not the tools cops use. It’s not their training. It’s not the rigged game of grand juries. At least, these things aren’t at root. The root problem is a consensus that we make cities safe by harassing the residents of their black neighborhoods. It is that idea that must be indicted and convicted and put away for good.

*Post has been updated since publication to reflect that Garner had not been convicted of selling loose cigarettes on the day he was killed.