I’m Police, And I Want Justice for Eric Garner

Whatever else happened that day, we know he used a banned chokehold.

Major Neill Franklin (Ret.)

In 2014, father of six Eric Garner was choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo while allegedly resisting arrest for selling loose cigarettes. He was unarmed. It took five years after his death — until just this week — for Attorney General William Barr to decide not to pursue civil rights charges against Pantaleo, who still wears a uniform and sits on desk duty. The length of time it took to reach this decision, the decision itself, and what the decision reflects on police officers across the country all brew a terrible sense of injustice in my heart.

While we don’t have the moments leading up to the confrontation on-camera, the footage we do have shows Pantaleo using a chokehold that was banned by the NYPD more than 20 years ago — because of how lethal it is.

I was a police officer for 34 years. Every officer makes mistakes, but not every officer engages in misconduct and it’s important to distinguish between the two to provide a model for future officers. This case and others like it reflect many police departments’ unwillingness to create a distinction between misconduct and mistakes. It’s a sad reality of our jobs and of the brutal nature of some criminals that we occasionally need to use lethal force. But in most cases, even when someone is armed, lethal force is unnecessary.

It’s not our job to carry out justice; it’s our job to apprehend criminals so that the prosecutors, courts and a jury of their peers can decide how to carry out the law. We expect the police to act quickly to complete a thorough investigation. We expect prosecutors to act quickly to decide whether or not to bring or case or if additional investigation is necessary. We expect courts to manage their dockets to bring cases to trial and conclusion.

Every time we acquit an officer the public generally believes to be guilty of serious misconduct, we lose a little more of the public’s trust. When prosecutors decline to charge them, people see all of us in the same corrupt light.

In addition to losing public trust in our justice system, this sort of decision makes becoming a police officer more attractive to those who seek unaccountable, unrestricted power — when police, as those who enforce the laws, are the ones who should be most dedicated to them.

Officers rely on trusting relationships with our communities to solve crimes and help victims get justice. In the absence of accountability, people are left with fear and disdain for us. Their feelings about us will continue to fuel anti-police violence, at least until we begin to reckon with our past mistakes and build a framework to both prevent tragedies and deal with them conscientiously in the aftermath.

Eric Garner (Right) with three of his children. (Photo source: National Action Network/Associated Press)

Please, for a moment, imagine an America in which police departments are transparent and officers are held accountable to their communities. What does justice look like? How does it make you feel? What would America look like if no one except the most terrifying among us were afraid of the police? When I imagine this future, I see harmony. I see safer neighborhoods. I see civilians enthusiastically approaching officers to ask how their day is going. I see police on foot patrol, spending time getting to know people outside regular service calls. That country is possible, and it’s within reach, but we have to demand more from the criminal justice system, especially our prosecutors.

Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) is a 34-year police veteran of the Baltimore City Police and Maryland State Police Departments. He is the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other criminal justice professionals who use their professional expertise to support better public safety policies.

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