The death of Eric Garner is a tragedy. We offer our heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and community. If the officers involved in his arrest are proven to have broken the law by using excessive force during the arrest, they should be prosecuted as criminals. No one, especially police officers, should be above the law.
That said, it’s important that we don’t indict the entire New York Police Department for this incident and smear the entire force with the ugly charge of racism and police brutality. While keeping in mind the sheer scope of daily responsibilities shouldered by the 35,000-strong force, we have to emphasize that the death of a suspect during an arrest is an extremely rare occurrence. New York’s Finest are responsible for law enforcement pertaining to everything from petty crimes to murder. Its officers make thousands of arrests every year, almost 8,000 on misdemeanors alone, and some of them are bound to go wrong. The NYPD had to investigate 111,335 felonies in 2013. Nevertheless, officers rarely pull the trigger, wound, or kill suspects. Last year only 26 suspects were shot. Most New York City police officers will never fire a shot during the course of their whole career.
While suspects are rarely unlawfully subjected to excessive force by the NYPD, let’s bear in mind that the department has lost all too many of its members while defending New Yorkers. Last year, seven officers died while in the line of duty. On 9/11, 23 officers lost their lives during the terrorist attack. And fighting terrorism has become another part of the job description for New York police officers.
Even in the sweltering heat, NYPD Hercules units wear pounds of body armor and carry heavy weapons, guarding such New York City landmarks as the Empire State Building, Times Square and Wall Street. The NYPD has gone global, placing officers in world capitals and in regional hotspots in order to gather intelligence on possible terrorist plots being planned against New York City. NYPD officers have even conducted interrogations of terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay.
No one deserves to suffer physical abuse or die for the petty crime of selling untaxed cigarettes, as Garner was allegedly doing, but the reason the Big Apple has become livable again during the last two decades is precisely because the NYPD has cracked down on such quality-of-life crimes. If we want the NYPD not to make arrests for such misconduct, we risk regressing to the crime-riddled New York of the 1970s.
As America’s cities descended into chaos during those years, NYC was no exception. The city’s murder rate skyrocketed to more than 2,000 a year by the early 1990s. But that number began to plummet in the mid-1990s when the NYPD, following the “Broken Window” theory, began to enforce the law on all levels and not just focus on serious felonies and murder. The recognition that small crimes are the seeds for an environment that breeds much more serious offenses led the NYPD to vigorously pursue and prosecute quality-of-life crimes. We are all safer — blacks, whites and Hispanics — because the NYPD treats no crime as too small to go after.
“Stop and frisk” has been controversial as it has been mostly members of minority groups who have been stopped by the police. The NYPD has been heavily criticized for racial profiling while enforcing that policy. But that strategy saved hundreds, if not thousands, of black and Hispanic lives. Ever since “stop and frisk” has been challenged and watered down, the number of shootings in the city has risen.
To the credit of the protesters, the demonstrations have so far been peaceful, but those leading the demonstrations have to be careful not to make incendiary remarks that could set passions aflame. All it takes is for a few bad apples to turn legal demonstrations into violent confrontations as in Ferguson, Missouri.
Yesterday, in Staten Island, the protesters chanted, “No Justice! No peace!” But exactly what kind of justice do they want? Do they want the officers arrested without grand jury deliberations or evidence gathering? The brand of summary justice the protesters are demanding for the officers is exactly the kind that civil rights leaders have fought against for decades. They fought against the lack of legal rights for blacks in the South and for a system that would be colorblind and impartial. Indicting individuals just because of the color of their uniform is just as reprehensible as persecuting a group only because of the color of their skin.