As protests erupted in July over the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in a struggle with police, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton took swift action to address what criminologists and ordinary New Yorkers agree is almost certainly the wrong problem. He announced that the entire 35,000-member force will be retrained in “smart policing techniques” to defuse confrontations, interact with civilians in “non-judgmental” ways, and, if all else fails, get them into handcuffs without killing them in the process.
In response to renewed demonstrations last week, after a Staten Island grand jury returned no indictment against the officer who wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck while trying to arrest him, Mayor Bill de Blasio asserted that “tragedies will be averted by this training.” But he was careful not to say it could have prevented the particular death that has caused so much outrage in the city and -- in combination with the deaths of black youths in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Cleveland -- the whole country.
The crisp assessment of Maria Haberfeld, a former lieutenant in the Israeli National Police, a world-renowned criminologist and professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is that the retraining program is a waste of money, $35 million to be exact. “To teach them how to be culturally sensitive and defuse situations -- if this could be accomplished in three days we would have solved the whole Mideast situation by now.”
To a civilian viewing the now-infamous video of Garner’s arrest, on the exceedingly minor charge of selling untaxed cigarettes on the street, the reason for de Blasio’s reticence is obvious. A course in conflict resolution might, or might not, have helped officers deal with the burly, 43-year-old Garner, who seems agitated and uncooperative but more interested in being left alone than in picking a fight. Instruction in alternative takedown maneuvers such as the “bar hammer lock” might, or might not, have obviated the disputed chokehold by Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo. But from the civilian perspective the key issue is what happened, or rather didn’t happen, while Garner was on the ground under a scrum of officers, repeatedly protesting, “I can’t breathe!” If cops are ignoring a man dying at their feet, the problem would seem to go deeper than a lack of training.
That's what troubles Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a retired police captain. Adams strongly supports de Blasio, but he thinks the issue that must be addressed is how a mostly white police force views the minority communities it patrols: As “skells,” “perps” and low-lifes to be kept at bay with batons and controlled with handcuffs. “All across the country, big-city police get great professional training,” Adams says, “but the good tactics go out the window when dealing with a black person. They leave the academy and hit the streets and the first thing they hear is, ‘kid, we don’t do it that way.’” In confronting a potentially violent suspect, the rookie cop learns the saying, “better tried by 12 than carried [in a casket] by six.”
A comment by Haberfeld illustrates, perhaps inadvertently, the vast gap in perception between the police and the policed. “It never looks good, it never looks clean when you use force,” Haberfeld says. As we now know, Garner -- who weighed over 300 pounds and suffered from asthma -- was, in fact, dying as he lay on the sidewalk. The medical examiner’s report concluded he died from the chokehold and “compression of the chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” But, Haberfeld asks, how were the cops supposed to know that? “Whenever you try to take a suspect who is resisting arrest, they will say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ or ‘I’m dying.’ It happens all the time.”
The cops might have been suffering from one of the occupational hazards of their job, compassion-fatigue -- the callousness that results from continuous exposure to endless misery and the worst aspects of human nature. “Nurses get it, cops get it,” says John DeCarlo, the former chief of police in Branford, Connecticut, and an associate professor at John Jay. “You put a new cop on the street and for the next five years he sees horrible things every day and he starts to think everyone is a liar and a dirtbag. They’ll come right out and say it: ‘I just have no more compassion.’”
DeCarlo thinks more training isn’t the answer, but rather, better vetting of recruits for emotional maturity and stability. “We give them an MMPI [Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory], which mostly just tells us they’re not psychotic,” he says. “How about if we gave them a more complete evaluation?” Haberfeld says she would set the minimum age for cops at 25. (In New York, you can apply to join the department at 17 1/2. Of course, hiring older recruits might require the city to increase the starting salary from its current level of $44,744. ) “People do not fully develop psychologically and emotionally until 23 or 24,” she says. “It’s beyond comprehension to me that we are giving 21-year-olds a gun and the ability to take someone’s life.”
The events of the past few months have disclosed a few questionable tactics that could, in principle, be addressed by training. The tragic confrontation between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Missouri might have played out differently if Wilson had gotten out to confront the jay-walking teenagers while standing, rather than from inside his car, says Bernard Melekian, a consultant to police departments and the former director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. (Melekian emphasizes that he’s giving a hypothetical opinion, based only on news accounts.) In Brooklyn last month, a cop shot and killed an innocent young man when his gun accidentally discharged in a housing-project stairwell, raising questions about whether cops should be conducting these “vertical patrols” with drawn weapons.
And then there's the question of chokeholds. The NYPD Patrol Guide is emphatic: “Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT use chokeholds,” which it defines as “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” Pantaleo, according to his lawyer, wasn’t doing anything like that to Garner; he was just trying to tackle him to the ground, an explanation that apparently satisfied the grand jury. The medical examiner, of course, saw it differently, as did Bratton, who told reporters that “as defined in the department’s patrol guide, this would appear to have been a chokehold.” Even so, the prohibition on chokeholds is an internal police guideline, not a law -- and in practice, every department recognizes that in a violent confrontation an officer will, and should, do what’s necessary for his own safety. “I’m 5-7 and I came up against a lot of guys who dwarfed me,” DeCarlo says. “When you’re little and the other guy is big, you’d grab whatever you could.”
Some police departments, including Los Angeles, have instructed officers in an alternative hold, the “lateral vascular neck restraint.” This involves applying pressure to the side, not the front, of the neck, to compress the carotid artery and cut off blood to the brain. Despite its ominous-sounding name this is considered safer than a chokehold, both for the suspect (because it's less likely to cause life-threatening injury to the windpipe) and the officer (because it renders the suspect limp almost instantaneously). But it does require extensive training and practice, and some police departments think it’s too risky for that reason. After Garner’s death, Bratton said he would send officers to Los Angeles to study the technique. The NYPD didn't respond to an International Business Times request for comment on the status of those plans.
Most police forces instruct their officers to confront defiance with a “continuum of force,” beginning with their mere presence, escalating to verbal commands, then wristholds and other “pain compliance actions.” The next steps are the use of nonlethal weapons (batons, Tasers) and, as a last resort, firearms. But that rule has to be balanced against the police officer’s imperative to keep any potentially violent situation from getting out of control. Counterintuitively, the balance is hardest to strike in dealing with petty crime. “Dealing with a bank robber is straightforward by comparison,” Melekian says.
The days when the cop on the beat was the biggest guy on the block and could force compliance just with a glare are long over. The trend for decades has been toward stricter guidelines for cops, reducing the discretion they once employed to drag a minor miscreant home to his family, with perhaps a little rap of the nightstick to remind him to behave in the future. Nobody wants to go back to the rampant corruption and brutality of those days. But the current system has the downside of inflexibility, creating the potential for any minor clash to escalate into -- well, we’ve seen where it can lead.