The so-far inexplicable decision of the grand jury that decided not to hand down an indictment in the case of a New York City police officer who put a hold on Eric Garner (who died later in a manner the medical examiner called a “homicide”) points to the complexities of managing police policy and strategy 20 years into the most vertiginous drop in crime the civilized world has likely ever seen.
Cops sought to apprehend Garner for committing a classic broken-windows offense—a petty act of criminality involving the sale of loose cigarettes. When the revolution in policing began in New York in 1994, the problem was that there was so much crime it seemed impossible to root out—and its very existence led to an atmosphere of general menace and lawlessness. Hence the brilliance of the notion that the first act of a functioning law-and-order system should be the reimposition of order not by arresting major criminals but by stopping low-level crime.
The theory, and it proved to be correct, was that there weren’t really two classes of criminal—the bad ones and the petty ones—but rather that criminality was a consistent kind of behavior. Someone who jumped a subway turnstile, or someone who sold loose cigarettes, was more likely than not to be wanted for a more serious offense. If you got him at the turnstile you would not only solve the previous crime but prevent the next one. And you would make people feel safe where they lived and worked.
This inspired strategy helped save New York City, and its adoption across the country helped save the nation from the most pressing domestic problem it faced from the 196os to the 1990s. But we’re now into our third decade of the crime drop, and the simple fact of the matter is that broken-windows logic doesn’t work in the same way it did in the 1990s. The criminal class that made New York City a disastrous place to live has been rendered ineffectual. Crime is down and has remained low because the crooks are in jail and have stayed in jail. The low-hanging fruit was picked, and so too was the fruit that hung higher.
Thus, in a reversal of the past, it’s more likely the case that a shambling 43 year-old selling loosies on a commercial strip is not someone who poses much of a danger, and need not be subdued aggressively as the officers in question sought to subdue Garner. You can’t do nothing about someone like Garner—allowing him to work the street as he was in front of functioning businesses is a classic example of a window that may be on the verge of breaking. But there’s nothing and then there’s too much.
What happened to Eric Garner was certainly not deliberate, but rather the result of a series of horrible choices. First, by Garner, to resist, and then by Officer Daniel Pantaleo to immobilize Garner by using an around-the-neck hold, which New York City cops are trained not to use (but which is not in fact illegal). It strikes me as understandable that a grand jury would look at the events and not see something they would call a murder.
But a murder charge was not the only choice open to them, or so we are being told right now. There are gradations of illegality involving the unnecessary death of someone, and it seems likely that (as was the case with the 1994 choke-hold death of Anthony Baez) the federal government will secure some kind of charge now that it has involved itself in this matter.
The real question that is going to be asked, now, is just how aggressive law enforcement can and should be in an era of low crime, which is what we’re in now. If you defang cops, you are inviting a return to trouble. As I wrote last week, “if we send police officers the message that it is safer for their careers and reputations to stand down, stand down they will. We are the ones who will have to reckon with the results.” At the same time, no civilized society can view the tape showing Garner’s desperate pleading and not ask some very difficult questions of itself.