Saving the Next Eric Garner

Another family shouldn't have to mourn.

Photographer: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

"It shouldn’t have gotten to that point." It's a sadly familiar phrase in this year of too many tragedies involving police and unarmed suspects. In the case of Eric Garner, who died in July while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes on the streets of New York City, it's especially telling.

It almost goes without saying that Garner -- who was no one's idea of a model citizen, with a police record of more than 30 arrests, including for assault and resisting arrest -- didn’t deserve to die for his offense. Worth saying again is that he shouldn’t have been handcuffed, put in a chokehold, thrown to the concrete and held there forcefully by an officer's knee on his neck.

Aggressive treatment has long been an accepted norm in making arrests, especially if the suspect seems to be resisting. And arresting people even for minor crimes has become an increasingly prevalent police tactic (the FBI now has 77 million Americans in its criminal database). But as circumstances change, so should norms -- and in an era of dwindling crime across the U.S., police departments need a better way to deal with the minor offenses they're encountering.

One such approach, advanced by Eugene O'Donnell of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is known as non-adversarial arrest. The idea is to use technology -- a tablet computer, say -- to fingerprint the suspect, take his picture and identify him. If he isn’t a wanted man, give him a summons to appear in court and send him on his way.

This approach couldn't be used for every crime, of course, and there would inevitably be disagreement over which ones it should apply to. But it would still be an arrest, requiring the suspect to answer for his actions in court or face incarceration, and sending a message to the community that the behavior in question won't be tolerated. Most important, non-adversarial arrests could prevent confrontations from escalating dangerously.

Under current practices, even a routine arrest can be a treacherous moment, humiliating for suspects and risky for cops. The better approach in situations like Garner's is de-escalation -- to reduce the tension, the embarrassment and the risk of violence. Non-adversarial arrests won't prevent every tragic confrontation between police and the public. But they could help make sure that far fewer situations reach that point.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.