Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : December 7th 2014 Contents The dust had hardly settled
after the protests in Fergu-
son, St Louis, over the fail-
ure of a Grand Jury to indict the
police officer who shot Michael
Brown, when the news came that
a Grand Jury ain New York had
similarly failed to recommend
charges against the police officer
who suffocated Eric Garner to
death in a chokehold.
Eric Garner was as unarmed as
he was black. He was accosted
on a sidewalk by a posse of
police who accused him of selling
Unlike in Michael Brown s case,
the Grand Jury did not have the
burden of sorting through con-
tradictory eyewitness evidence.
The events which led to Gar-
ner s death were all caught on
He was not resisting arrest. He
did not try to flee.
But he was defiant. He was
incensed at what he perceived to
be police harassment. He was
protesting his innocence.
The video shows a sudden rush
by five or six police officers. One
immediately put him in a choke-
hold, while the others wrestled
him to the ground, face down.
Garner was a big man. Over-
weight. Officers were on his
This, in combination with the
chokehold, put pressure on his
lungs. He called out repeatedly
that he could not breathe. He got
no relief and died from asphyxia-
tion. The chokehold the officer
administered is outlawed in the
New York police force.
The NYPD s guidelines on
arrests urge officers to get a pris-
oner off his stomach as soon as
he is handcuffed.
This is because a person is
unable to breathe lying face down
when pressure is applied to his
back. The diaphragm becomes
constricted and the prisoner is
unable to inhale and exhale.
Obese people are especially sus-
ceptible to suffocation in these
Despite the availability of
indisputable evidence and a clear
breach of departmental guide-
lines, the Grand Jury was not
persuaded to recommend charges.
It is important here to speak
about the task of a Grand Jury in
the United States. It is not
required to find guilt beyond a
It need only find probable
cause for an indictment. Prosecu-
tors notoriously exercise almost
absolute control over the out-
They present whatever evidence
they choose. The potential defen-
dant is not represented.
More than 99 per cent of cases
put before the Grand Jury result
in the preferment of charges.
By stark contrast, the Grand
Jury has never recommended the
indictment of a police officer
who has killed in the course of
The Michael Brown and Eric
Garner cases are just the last in a
string of fatal shootings of
unarmed black men by police
who have escaped any criminal
Once again concerns of institu-
tional racism in the police have
come to the fore. It is the lack of
regard for black lives which lead
white officers to so readily
employ undue force to subdue
Commentators are much
slower to make a charge of
institutional racism about the
Grand Jury system itself.
But what has emerged is the
presence of institutional bias---
not necessarily racist bias, but
that cannot be altogether
excluded---among the prosecu-
tors whose function it is to take
cases against police before the
Prosecutors take cases to court
which are investigated and pre-
pared by police officers, who in
the main serve as their witness-
es. Prosecutors must therefore
interact with police officers on a
If they do not personally
know the officer who is being
investigated for a fatal shooting,
they know generally of the haz-
ards police face on a daily basis,
their acts of heroism and gal-
lantry in the defence of law-
abiding citizens, their perceived
strengths and weaknesses.
They come to see the world
through their eyes. They easily
sympathise at a personal level.
They understand their motiva-
tions and fears.
They would, naturally, see any
fatal shooting from the police
officer s perspective.
It is therefore probably not
surprising that a prosecutor
would, even if subconsciously,
refrain from pressing a case
against a comrade in arms too
forcefully before the Grand Jury.
The prosecutor in the Michael
Brown case did not even push
for a charge. He left it to the
jury to come to its own conclu-
sions without his assistance.
Calls are now being made for
the revamping of the Grand Jury
system in the United States.
The lesson of the Michael
Brown and Eric Garner cases is
that local prosecutors are not
institutionally equipped to pres-
ent cases against police officers
with sufficient detachment.
There are lessons for us in
T&T as well. There has been a
recent spate of police killings.
Families are left distraught.
There are too many cases of
eyewitnesses attesting to sum-
mary executions, contradicting
the official line that the police
were simply returning fire.
Here, issues of institutional
class, not race, bias complicate
the analysis of events. But the
common problem is to find the
appropriate mechanism to hold
the police accountable, one in
which the public will have con-
Obviously, we cannot rely on
the police service to investigate
We have many conscientious
and professional police officers,
but their history of common
experience with their colleagues
under investigation cannot be
expected to inspire confidence
that a thorough and impartial
investigation will be carried out.
Much hope is placed in the
Police Complaints Authority to
perform this role. The authority
is designed to be independent of
The director and its members
are independently appointed and
its investigators are not mem-
bers of the police, even though
they may once have been mem-
bers of the protective services.
It is here that all cases of
police killings should be sent for
December 7, 2014 www.guardian.co.tt Sunday Guardian
...Making a case against police killings
against a grand jury's
decision not to indict the
police officer involved in
the death of Eric Garner
stage a "die-in" at the
Apple Store on Fifth
Avenue, on Friday, in
New York. AP PHOTO
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