Something that I didn’t notice about the Eric Garner chokehold video until my parents mentioned it tonight is that right up to the moment the scuffle started, the officer standing in front of Garner, the one in the navy blue “D. D.” shirt and gray cargo shorts who is shown alternately in profile and from behind, is very calmly and, given the circumstances, civilly listening to Garner vent about how the cops have been treating him. I had vaguely noticed this officer’s calmness before, but it was on an almost subconscious level and swamped by the horror of the police pile-on that followed. Taking another look at still shots from the video, this cop’s body and facial language appear calm and restrained even as his colleague Daniel Panteleo starts to implement the chokehold from behind. Pantaleo is forcefully gripping Garner’s right biceps with his right arm and is bringing his left forearm around Garner’s neck, and meanwhile the officer standing in front of Garner, the one whom he could most easily charge and tackle, is much more lightly gripping Garner’s left fist with his right hand.
This cop appears to be a few inches shorter than Pantaleo. He’s clearly a head shorter than Garner and half his size, and Garner has been just been addressing him, not Pantaleo, for the vast majority of the field interrogation. In the video, Pantaleo mostly stands off to the side, at an angle at which he may well not have consistently been in Garner’s peripheral vision, while the short cop directly faces Garner from a distance of about three feet (showing that, unlike all too many cops, he has the tact, decency, and street smarts not to invade Garner’s personal space) and calmly listens to his angry tirade about how he and his colleagues have been mistreating Garner. Later, while Garner drags Pantaleo along the sidewalk because Pantaleo is hanging on to his neck for dear life and the uniforms swarm in to help him finish what he started, the short cop in the “D. D.” shirt appears hesitant to join the melee. After briefly trying to help Pantaleo restrain Garner by grabbing Garner’s arms and pushing his chest, he doesn’t join the bigger piling-on until after the uniforms have all charged in, and even then he keeps his torso at an awkward distance and looks halfhearted, as if he doesn’t want anything to do with the brawl but also doesn’t want to look like a cowardly bystander who won’t provide mutual aid to his colleagues.
Did he show physical cowardice? Maybe, but not much, and only at a time when his colleagues had suddenly become wildly violent. He looked quite calm, if a bit annoyed, while an angry guy twice his size yelled at him from just beyond shoving distance about how angry he was with the NYPD. He basically stood there and listened, occasionally putting in a word of his own before calmly listening to another round of Garner’s tirade.
Garner was so big and angry that Pantaleo, an exceptionally aggressive cop who appears to be about six feet tall, was completely unable to subdue him on his own, even with one arm clenched tight over his biceps and the other clenched tight over his neck. If Garner had wanted to do harm to Pantaleo’s colleague, he probably could have put the guy into the ICU before Pantaleo or any backup officers could lay a hand on him. Instead, Garner didn’t lay a finger on any of them except to try to stop them from arresting him. Legally, what he did was resisting arrest; in any situation involving private citizens, it would have been classic self-defense.
I’m afraid I was totally wrong about the short cop for months. Left to his own devices, none of this would have happened. If he had tried to place Garner under arrest on his own or with the assistance of equally self-restrained colleagues, Garner might have thrashed around a bit, maybe inadvertently smacked them in the abdomen or something, and then broken loose. This cop who he had been talking to might not have even tried to give chase, since he would be risking life and limb to restrain a guy who clearly wanted to walk away from a dispute over loosies and (or?) an earlier fight that Garner had broken up. Neither Garner nor this officer appeared to want a fight. The problem was that the fight wanted them.
Pantaleo, meanwhile, started something he was powerless to finish and found himself being dragged around the sidewalk by this big guy who only wanted the cops to stop hassling him. He was trying to choke Garner, and instead he ended up hoist by his own arms. He was trying to choke Garner over what amounted to a streetcorner pissing match with the NYPD.
Let’s do a quick counterfactual history in which the only constants are Garner, Pantaleo, and the short cop who had been listening to him. Now, let’s assume that all of the backup officers on the scene are self-restrained ones, temperamentally more or less like the short cop. Maybe some of them are women, maybe there’s a big teddy bear or two in the mix, or whatever, but Pantaleo is the only cop on the scene who wants to forcibly subdue Garner. The others see him jumping Garner from behind and are floored. So they watch, hoping that they don’t have to move in. Maybe one of them screams at Pantaleo, asking him what the fuck he thinks he’s doing.
Pantaleo is still trying to choke Garner from behind, but Garner has lifted him off the ground and is running away. Now we’ve got this big black guy in a soiled white undershirt thrashing around and dragging this swarthy white guy in cargo shorts and a pristine jersey down the sidewalk, and another white guy in cargo pants and a bunch of uniformed patrol officers are following them from a few paces behind. And this Guido bruiser-looking dipshit is getting tossed around a bit because he’s trying to ride this huge black guy down the sidewalk by holding onto the black guy’s neck with his own tightly flexed arms.
Now the other cops, the ones following Pantaleo and Garner, have to make a decision. Garner has built up a head of steam and doesn’t look interested in surrendering, but he’s also obese and easily winded, and Pantaleo’s trying to choke him while he walks down the street. If any of the other cops are thinking about what this situation could do to Garner, they realize that he’s out of shape and probably has health problems related to obesity. He’s lower-class and hasn’t taken care of himself; the other officers don’t take note of this because they want to pass judgment on him but because they don’t want him to get hurt. Pantaleo, by contrast, is toned, younger, and in excellent physical shape. He may come away scratched up, but it’s unlikely that he’ll get seriously injured, let alone killed, especially if he has the humility to realize that all he’s doing is getting dragged along by the arms in a stress position and just let go of Garner in the interest of minimizing his own exposure to injury. If this goes on much longer, Garner may go into some sort of life-threatening health crisis: asthma attack, heart attack, pulmonary embolism, stroke. The other cops may not be able to articulate what health risks Garner faces, but being attentive to these sorts of things, they have a bad gut feeling that Garner is at an elevated risk of serious further damage to his health or sudden death, and that the crucial thing to do to protect his life and health is to literally get Pantaleo off his back.
The other cops realize that they have two options to protect Garner from serious bodily harm or death. One is to hope that Pantaleo lets go or loses his grip and lets Garner flee, as Garner was trying to do all along. The problem with this approach is that Pantaleo has completely lost his cool. He’s trying to choke a guy over some two-bit streetcorner dispute, and the guy he’s trying to choke is big and angry enough that if he isn’t calmed down he could do some serious damage. Aside from the threat to Garner’s life and limb, there’s a clear public interest in getting Pantaleo to stand down so that he and Garner aren’t crashing into innocent bystanders or their property. Again, this isn’t something that the other cops have to be able to articulate in order to recognize it and take action.
So the other option is to subdue Pantaleo with force. They’re on the verge of beating up their own colleague, and they don’t like this prospect in the slightest, but he’s being a fucking yahoo. He’s putting a suspect with obvious health problems in imminent threat of death from force disproportionate to the circumstances, he’s needlessly putting himself and his colleagues in danger of injury, and he’s putting the property of people who had no involvement in the original dispute at risk of damage.
One of the officers draws his baton and gives Pantaleo a well-placed blow to the back of the head. Pantaleo’s grip on Garner loosens. The other cops are finally able to pull him away from Garner. He’s unresponsive. Garner goes down on his knees, crying. One of the cops puts in a radio call for an ambulance, then starts stabilizing Pantaleo in preparation for the EMT’s.
The ambulance arrives and takes Pantaleo away. The cops are hoping and praying that he’s still alive, but they don’t really want to know. The one who gave him the blow to the head is on the verge of shock because he may have just killed a man.
Garner, still on his knees a few yards away, cries out for help. He says he has chest pain. He has arm pain. He can’t breathe. The cops help him sit down on the sidewalk. They stand by, talking to him, ready to start first aid at a moment’s notice. One of them radios for a second ambulance and runs to a cruiser for an automatic defibrillator. They do this because they give a damn about him. He isn’t a suspect, not now; he’s a guy who’s having a heart attack and needs to go to the hospital, and they want to make sure that he’s prepped for the ambulance crew. They tell him to hang in there, that he’s gonna make it. They don’t know that, of course, but they have to believe it.
The second ambulance arrives and takes Garner away. He may be dying, he may have started dying on their watch, but at least they know that they didn’t kill him. Pantaleo, maybe, but not the rest of them. They did what they could. They forced Pantaleo down, and they did what they could to stabilize both him and Garner. They feel terrible about it all, and they’re second-guessing themselves, but they know that they were put to the test and they tried to pass it.
That night, one of the cops uses back channels to get word on Garner’s condition. It turns out that his health is a god-awful mess, but he’s alive. They figured that he was in poor health. That’s why they used force on Pantaleo. The cop who beat him on the head goes before an Internal Affairs panel. He says he feels awful about it, but Pantaleo looked like he was gonna kill that guy.
Let’s ignore Pantaleo’s medical condition in this counterfactual scenario, because the whole damn thing is tragic, and change the scenario during the initial chokehold. Pantaleo grabs Garner by the neck and is lifted off the ground. Garner thrashes around, and Pantaleo loses his grip. He goes after Garner again. It’s just him up against this big dude who won’t stand still and won’t follow police orders. He tries to put another arm around Garner’s neck, but Garner thrashes around and knocks him off balance. The other cops on scene are yelling at him to stand down: not at Garner, at Pantaleo. Why are you doing that? Oh my god, are you trying to use a chokehold? You aren’t allowed to do that! Pantaleo screams bloody murder at them for backup. Why the fuck aren’t you guys helping me out here? Why the hell aren’t you helping me subdue this fucking animal? Jesus fucking Christ, you’re a bunch of rats! I said I need some fucking help here!
The other cops stand their ground. For God’s sake, you were using a fucking chokehold! That’s against Department regulations and you know it! You coulda killed the guy! One of them is on the phone with the watch commander, saying that there has been a use of force incident and we need you at the scene, sir.
Pantaleo is safe in this scenario, but not from the brass. His backup has crossed the Rubicon. It’s five against one, and when the watch commander arrives, it’ll be six against one. Actually, seven: that cop who had been listening to Garner’s tirade a few minutes earlier is talking to him again, but away from Pantaleo and the others. He’s probably telling Garner that the watch commander will want to talk to him about the chokehold incident. The streetfight? The loosies? That’s all ancient history now. Pantaleo wants to beat the shit out of these rats, choke the life out of them, but he’s outnumbered four-to-one, five-to-one if the cop talking to Garner jumps in, and the way things are going, the watch commander will be on the phone with the 120th Precinct DI and assistants to the Commissioner by the end of watch. It’s time to simmer the hell down. As much as he hates these filthy rats, he doesn’t want the brass seeing him getting up in the other cops’ faces and looking like the aggressor that he is.
There are enough good cops in the NYPD to make one of these scenarios happen. The less violent scenario probably happens from time to time without making the papers, with the cooler heads on scene talking some dipshit colleague into not getting up in a guy’s face for no reason and starting a fight. We saw such a thing on film in Ferguson, when two colleagues bodily pulled St. Ann Lt. Ray “Go Fuck Yourself” Albers away from the journalist he was threatening to shoot. I strongly suspect that these good cops outnumber the bad cops in most departments, including the NYPD. The problem is that the bad cops have intimidated everyone else on the force. The NYPD is ruled by the worst of its officers. Legally, it’s a police department; functionally, it’s the mafia.
It might not be if the good cops made the bad ones know that their asses are on the line for unnecessary violence under color of authority, and that their colleagues are ready, willing, and able to turn state’s evidence against assholes who cause them nothing but trouble on the job.