Eric Garner and police overreach: "How many of these kinds of things have happened that weren’t captured on video?"

Eric Garner's tragic death may just be the most obvious example of deeper problems at the NYPD, an expert says

Published August 2, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

Pallbearers carry the casket of Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church following his funeral service, July 23, 2014, in Brooklyn, N.Y.                  (AP/John Minchillo)
Pallbearers carry the casket of Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church following his funeral service, July 23, 2014, in Brooklyn, N.Y. (AP/John Minchillo)

In America's biggest cities, tensions between the police and the communities they're sworn to protect and serve are never too deeply hidden beneath the surface — especially when it comes to the cops' relationship with the city's most disadvantaged and disregarded residents.

Still, when video showing an unarmed Staten Island man named Eric Garner dying after being violently subdued by an NYPD officer went viral, it was a disturbing reminder of just how much power is given to every single police officer, and the horrible things that can happen when that power is abused. And that unsettling reminder was made all the more troublesome later in the month, when the Department of Justice released a report finding as many as 75 percent of pedestrian stops undertaken by Newark police are unconstitutional — meaning situations like that Garner found himself in are unfolding in Newark (and across the country) every single day.

Earlier this week, I spoke with criminologist and Drexel University professor Robert Kane, co-author of "Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department," about the Garner tragedy, the Newark report and how America's police departments can maintain public order and safety without sacrificing their relationships with the communities that need them most. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

The Garner video — what was your reaction, both as a private citizen and as an expert?

As a person, those kinds of violent police-citizen interactions look bad. They often cause private citizens to immediately question the legitimacy of the police because the kind of force that was used certainly appeared to be excessive compared to the kind of resistance the officer was facing. So as a private citizen, I always think back to the original political scientist of the 19th century, Max Weber, who said that politicians not only have to do the right thing, politicians have to appear to be doing the right thing. That argument holds with the police as well because, in a way, they are a street form of politician. So when they engage in behaviors that appear to be wrong or inappropriate, it immediately causes the public to question their legitimacy because ... of the whole concept of “who’s watching the watchers?” or "who’s policing the police?"

As a criminologist, my professional response to myself was “I’m pretty sure that guy just violated the NYPD’s policy” because I doubt seriously that the NYPD allows officers to use the carotid chokehold restraint on suspects [Editor's note: they don't]. Most police departments don’t allow that.

Considering your own extensive research on the NYPD, were you surprised when you saw the video to see a cop acting that way?

No, I wasn’t surprised.

I was very fortunate to be able to study the NYPD because everything happens in New York City, and therefore everything happens in the NYPD. They’ve got just absolutely courageous, fabulous police officers who are probably some of the best in the world; they probably have a lot of mediocre police officers who are decent at their job but cover their asses whenever they possibly can so they don’t get in trouble; but then they also have a fair number of what a lot of cops call “assholes in uniform” or “crooks in uniform” and that is essentially people who are, for a variety of reasons, not fit for the job either because they have criminal histories and they engage in corruption or they have very short fuses and they escalate potentially violent encounters into violent encounters which, of course, places other officers at risk as well. So the NYPD runs the spectrum of the quality of police officers, and every now and then you see something that appears to be pretty hideous — as what we see in this video is. It’s shocking just on its face because it’s hard to imagine that any police officer in America would engage in what appeared to be pretty gross excessive force, but at the same time, we really can’t be completely surprised by it because this kind of stuff happens and it’s going to happen in NYC.

The other thing I might say is, overall, what I've found ... is that police corruption and police malpractice is fairly rare. At any given time in that department, only about 2 percent of the officers were getting "jammed up," if you will, for police misconduct — and that included excessive force. That’s the tip of the iceberg, no doubt, because this was misconduct that would cause him to have to leave the job; so I don’t know where the iceberg ends. But I don’t think the NYPD has any greater problem with excessive force than any other relatively large, highly diverse location in America has. It’s a tough job, especially in NYC, where the neighborhood police on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at 86th and Park, they’re supposed to act a certain way to the residents of that neighborhood, whereas cops who are working well up into the hundreds on both sides of Manhattan, or across the river up in the Bronx, face different challenges every day -- and those different working environments affect a lot of different police officers in rather problematic ways.

What role do you think the NYPD's most controversial tactic, stop-and-frisk, may have played in the Garner situation? Admittedly, it was a pretty extraordinary and horrible incident, but what role (if any) do stop-and-frisk and policies like it play in creating an atmosphere where those kinds of singularly terrible altercations can occur?

I think that you hit it on the head when you said that this is a pretty rare event ... But I’d largely agree with the sentiment, the public sentiment ... that these aggressive enforcement practices, such as stop-and-frisk, set a very aggressive tone in the organization from the top down. And for me, as a private citizen, I get concerned, because I don’t necessarily want to feel like every time I walk outside, I may be subject to stop-and-frisk. And as a professional academic police scholar, who has done lots of research on these kinds of aggressive practices and their consequences, I can tell you with a really high degree of professional certainty that overly aggressive enforcement practices actually cause violent crime to go up.

It’s funny, because these organizations that develop these aggressive enforcement practices — whether they’re aggressive arrest practices, like the disorder arrest, or the stop-and-frisk practices — this kind of stuff, it tends to be concentrated in neighborhoods that are already probably fairly disenfranchised along several dimensions. They tend to exist in racially concentrated and economically disadvantaged areas. These are places where people feel that they already don’t have a voice in how they’re treated by the police. And as a result, once the police come in and start to employ even more aggressive enforcement practices, it causes people to see them as an occupying force and not a police force that’s there to protect them.

The consequence here is that people stop giving the police information, they cut the police off so that police officers become completely reactive. They don’t know where the guns are; they don’t know where the drugs are. All they know is what they see outside, because nobody will talk to them and nobody will give them a window to what’s going on inside. And as a result, a lot of violent crime that might have been prevented had the police been able to learn about what’s going on indoors, it’s not prevented. It occurs, because no one’s talking to the police, no one’s giving them information. And when the police are seen as illegitimate or when they’re seen as occupiers, it’s very difficult for them to develop informants.

Stipulating again that what happened to Eric Garner is not the norm, how do you think controversial and high-profile incidents affect the police's relationship with their communities? How profound and long-lasting can the damage be after something like this?

It depends on how the department responds. Here’s the thing: Most people in America, when they’re surveyed, they believe the police are a legitimate source of public safety and law enforcement. ... So the police in this country actually enjoy ... a pretty high degree of legitimacy, particularly since 9/11. ... Even in some of the more troubled neighborhoods, where there is a tense relationship between the police and residents there, police tend to enjoy a fairly high degree of legitimacy, at least from the older folks — not so much from the younger kids, the teenagers and young adults, because, typically, they’re the targets of stop-and-frisk, some of the heavy-duty enforcement ...

So let’s start there as the baseline, because the baseline’s important. We come into this event knowing that the police typically enjoy a fairly high level of legitimacy even around New York City, even among people who don't live there. Just look around you; the NYPD is like the Yankees. Everybody has a Yankees cap; everybody who comes to New York City wants to buy an NYPD cap. It’s just the way it is. So among tourists, and even among people who live there, the NYPD is going to enjoy a fairly high degree of legitimacy. The question is, how might an event like this cause an immediate decline in that legitimacy? A lot of it depends on how the department responds. Now, in many cases, the police department has to circle the wagons, because they’re afraid of civil litigation, and they should be afraid of civil litigation, because that’s the kind of society we live in, unfortunately. So if a police department comes out and says, "We acknowledge that this happened. It looks pretty bad to us. We’re going to do our best to adjudicate this thing in a public way" and if they do so — if they adjudicate it in a public way, a way that demonstrates to the public that they are at least taking it seriously and that they are not circling the wagons — then very often the police can bounce back from something like this quickly, and they can be seen as even more legitimate sometimes.

Last question: As I'm sure you know, the DOJ had a report recently on Newark pedestrian stops, and it found that the vast majority of them are unconstitutional. As horrible as the Eric Garner killing was — and neither of us wants to diminish it in any way — I'd like to ask you if you think the lesser-noticed Newark story is actually more indicative of the problems of modern policing than is the Garner tragedy?

Yes, I do. I think that in some ways, Garner is like Rodney King. I mean, again, let’s assume that this officer violated policy and did something horrific and will be adjudicated as such. If we come to find out that this was a problem for the department, and that we didn’t miss 30 seconds of video beforehand — where the person was trying to crush the officer’s skull with a wrench or something like that — this is almost to me like Rodney King. Rodney King and the LAPD were the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is the daily hassles that economically disadvantaged and otherwise disenfranchised neighborhoods have to endure by the police department.

It’s interesting and it’s complicated, because it may be that the Garner thing is an anomaly in the NYPD, that it's a "Holy smokes, here’s one police officer who just never should have been hired and who committed an atrocity in terms of excessive force to the point of using deadly force illegitimately" [situation]. It could be that. Or it could be that the Garner thing is just the tip of the iceberg in the sense that it may be a symptom of a broader problem with police officers who work in neighborhoods where they feel as though they are in charge. In that case, it may be that they’re used to getting away with these kinds of aggressive behaviors with impunity. And that’s my fear ... when you see something like this, my fear would be, "OK, I see this on videotape, but how many of these events have happened where death didn’t result? How many of these kinds of things have happened that weren’t captured on video?"

Newark is a good example of this, because that’s a troubled police organization. It’s been a troubled police organization for a long time. ... There’s a fairly long history of police officers suing each other, suing the chief of police for wrongful termination; it’s very difficult for the chief in the Newark Police Department to discipline or terminate police officers for a variety of reasons, civil service and union protections among them. So that’s an agency that’s had trouble for a long time. It’s also in a city where a good portion of the city exists in highly economically disadvantaged conditions. I hate to be crass about it, but the police chiefs of a lot of cities in America are telling their police, "You’re a hammer, and when you’re a hammer, everything’s a nail." What that translates to sometimes in the working environment of police officers is that you send the police to solve a problem, and they’re gonna solve it using coercive force, because that’s what they do.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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