One year ago today, 43-year-old Eric Garner died after being put in an illegal chokehold by New York City police while being arrested for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. His last words, captured on video —"I can't breathe" — became a rallying cry in the fight to end police brutality and in the movement to assert that Black Lives Matter. But on the anniversary of his death, Garner's daughter says justice still has not been served.
On Monday, New York City agreed to pay $5.9 million to Garner's family to settle its wrongful-death lawsuit. But none of the officers involved in Garner's death — including Daniel Pantaleo, who used the illegal chokehold — has ever been charged with a crime. It's a troubling trend: The amount that police departments and cities have paid in settlements and court judgments in police-misconduct cases rose 48% between 2010 and 2014, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of public records. In 2014, the police departments of the 10 largest cities nationwide paid out $248.7 million to victims of police misconduct and their families, compared to $168.3 million in 2010, the Journal found.
But in many of the high-profile cases of unarmed Black men killed by police in the past year — Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Darrien Hunt, among them — no officers were ever convicted of, or even indicted for, a crime. Police-reform advocates say that pricy settlements in the absence of criminal convictions set a dangerous precedent. "Every time we have a civil settlement in the absence of an indictment, it's hush money," James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, told Refinery29. "I don't mean that to disrespect the families; I mean that as a critique of the system. "Essentially, our municipalities and their lawyers are more willing to pay to cover up or resolve these cases than they are willing to invest in justice for the families and communities they are charged with serving and protecting," Peterson says. "These things should be inverted. We should be able to seek criminal justice on these issues more easily than civil settlements. The system is totally upside-down."
In 2014, the police departments of the 10 largest cities paid out $248.7 million to victims of police misconduct and their families.
Wall Street Journal analysis of public records
The coroner's report showed that Garner, who had asthma, died after the chokehold was applied, according to the Associated Press. Pantaleo, the officer who applied the hold, claimed it was a legal move. A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in December. Outrage also erupted after the bystander who filmed Garner's arrest, Ramsey Orta, was instead indicted. Djibril Toure, an activist with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, says police unions are also to blame in preventing criminal justice from being served. "It's a systematic problem where officers are protected through their unions and supporting organizations that make sure that whenever they kill an unarmed person, they are not charged," Toure told Refinery29. "People have to confront that kind of power that exists behind the scenes and allows this to continue happening." Patrick Lynch, president of New York City's Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, a major police union, did not immediately return requests for comment. But when protests erupted in December over the grand jury's decision not to indict Pantaleo, Lynch accused New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio of "throwing officers under the bus."
Every time we have a civil settlement in the absence of an indictment, it's hush money.
James Braxton Peterson, Lehigh University
Maria Haberfeld, a professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Refinery29 that comparing the rulings of civil and criminal courts often have nothing to do with each other. "There is no correlation between the outcome of the civil case and whether officers were indicted or charged with a crime, or whether they were disciplined internally or externally," Haberfeld says. "There are two different thresholds of proof. In a criminal case, it has to be beyond reasonable doubt. In a civil case, you don't have those hard standards, and there are also differences in terms of the threshold of responsibility. You see in many cases that the criminal cases doesn't generate charges, but the civil case succeeds."
Haberfeld says the discrepancies among jury systems across the U.S. are also partly to blame. "We live in the same country, but we have different systems and considerations, as well as different legal structures, so if you compare grand juries around the country, it's very difficult to find two that are identical." "People tend to think that convictions in police-brutality cases didn't happen there or here because [of] the rights of the person involved, but it's more the structure of the jury, or the prosecutor's ability to influence the jury, as well as public opinion once the deliberations of the jury come out," she says. For their part, Garner's family have said they aren't done pushing for justice. A massive rally is planned for Saturday outside the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn, with Garner's family, religious leaders, and the relatives of other victims of police brutality. Toure says he believes that only this kind of grassroots pressure can force legislators and police departments to act. "This kind of brutality happens across the country, and we are buldingn a movement against it," Toure says. "Hopefully, we don't see the kind of riots that we saw in the 1960s and 1970s, but I do feel we are moving towards that direction if things don't change. I think if people continue to see unarmed folks killed and officers not punished, the response will be more outrage — and more organizing."