The Eric Garner Case Weakens the Argument for Police Body Cameras

Video didn’t save the life of Eric Garner, the unarmed black man who died in July from a chokehold applied by a New York City police officer. And now it appears that video also wasn’t enough to persuade a New York grand jury to indict the officer who helped arrest the 43-year-old Garner on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island.

That’s important because prominent public figures, including President Obama, have prescribed cameras as a way to reduce police killings of civilians, reasoning that police will be more careful if they know their actions are being recorded. There was no video evidence—and no indictment—in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old who was shot to death in August by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in a case that led to violent protests. The Obama administration said Dec. 1 it will seek $263 million from Congress for community policing, including $75 million to help purchase 50,000 body cameras for law enforcement agencies.

In the case of Eric Garner, a grand jury decided not to bring criminal charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is seen on video grabbing Garner from behind, putting his arm across his throat, and pulling him to the ground. Garner can be heard on the video repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe!” Medical examiners concluded that the police were the primary cause of Garner’s death, with his obesity, asthma, and heart problems cited as additional factors.

The Eric Garner case weakens the argument for cameras but doesn’t knock it out entirely. The main reason for cameras isn’t to give grand juries more information but to cause police officers to behave responsibly in the first place. The video in the Garner case was captured by a bystander’s cellphone, and it’s not clear that the officers who wrestled Garner to the ground were aware that they were on camera. It’s possible that if the officers themselves had been wearing body cameras they might have treated Garner differently from the start.

The New York City police department’s own guidelines prohibit chokeholds. Panataleo has been stripped of his gun and badge. The rest of the officers in the arrest have received immunity in the case.

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