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Bad Cop Blotter

​What Killed Eric Garner, Racist Cops or Cigarette Taxes?

It's fine for conservatives to use Garner's tragic death to decry the "nanny state," but they also shouldn't ignore the racial disparities that run through the US justice system.

by Lucy Steigerwald
Dec 8 2014, 5:30pm

Photo via Flickr user scottlum

The non-indictment of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo over the death of Eric Garner last week generated a backlash, to say the least. P​rotests erupted in several cities, particularly in New York. Unlike the lingering unknown that was the unfilmed death of Michael Brown, Garner's last moments of consciousness and his last hour of life were documented by a bystander, lending an extra dose of intensity to the unrest.

The video is so disturbing that folks staging "die-ins" and Georg​e W. Bush both came to nearly the same conclusion: Shouldn't there be some consequence for Pantaleo?

But let's not get too optimistic. The bipartisan (or tripartisan, if you want to include libertarians) conclusion that something went horribly wrong here is heartening, but limited. On the very day that the grand jury released their conclusion, some ​were already delicately dubious that conservatives might be using Garner's death as an excuse to talk about NYC's cigarette taxes, which led to his selling of loosies. That, lest we forget, was the NYPD's excuse for hassling Garner on the day they choked him.

Should conservatives use this tragic death to get on their soa​pboxes about the nanny state? If they want to, sure. But they also shouldn't ignore the racial disparities that run through the US justice system. A ProPublica investigation found that bla​ck males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white guys. The NYPD's stop and frisk program leans incredibl​y heavily on making the lives of black and Latino males miserable. A new Daily News rep​ort out Monday revealed that of 179 NYPD-involved deaths since 1999, where race was known 86 percent of the victims were black and Hispanic—and only 1 cop was convicted of any wrongdoing in those cases. 

At the same time, we shouldn't pretend Garner's death is about race and nothing else, if for no other reason than because racism is a lot harder to fix than laws. We can—and should—retrain police. We can—and should—have zero tolerance for explicitly racist officers. But if there's a legal excuse for a stop, be it firearms, drugs, or cheap cigarettes, cops are going to make that stop. And if they are allowed to, they are going to treat the noncompliance of a suspected cigarette-seller with the same zero tolerance that they would a suspected murderer. 

Laws like the ones against smoking pot on the street and bans on loose cigarettes are a cornerstone of broken win​dows policing. They are the engine that can propel racial profiling into deadly actions like the choking of Eric Garner. Maybe it's time we keep police under glass until real emergencies. At the very least, we need to abolish every damn law that criminalizes consensual behavior.

Now onto this week's bad cops:

-The National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) acted fast to make sure that the multibillion-dollar 1033 program that passes surplus war goods to SWAT teams remained firmly in place in spite of President Obama and some half-assed congressional measures to abolish or limit it. In the face of whispers of reining in the Pentagon program, the N​TOA bombarded various congress members with goading emails. This is the kind of union that conservatives, liberals, and libertarians should all be extremely interested in defanging. (On the other hand, it seems that other law enforcement unions, such as the the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the National Black Police Association, are open to certain reforms, which is nice.)

-VICE contributor Justin Glawe has a disturbin​g piece in the Daily Beast about the Chicago Police Department's lack of transparency or accountability in their firearms use. In the past year, there were 43 shootings by Chicago PD officers, and 13 fatalities. Glawe notes that "a Freedom of Information Act request for reports on all officer-involved shooting incidents in the past two years was denied by the department because it was deemed to be 'unduly burdensome.'"

-Last week in Phoenix, another unarmed black man was shot dead by police. Police say that Rumain Brisbon was in the middle of a drug deal when he was shot. His friends dispute this. Brisbon reportedly reached for something in his car, then repeatedly failed to comply with an officer's instructions. He ev​entually reportedly struggled with the unnamed officer over his gun. The officer fired because he thought he felt a gun on Brisbon—it turns out to have been a bottle of Oxycontin. 

Why were the police messing with Brisbon? An informant said he was selling drugs. Weed and a gun were found in his car. He had an arrest record, which included burglary. His friends say he had a medical marijuana card, which is yet to be confirmed. Drug war bullshit seems to be the only confirmed detail in this miserable story.

-The San Jose Police Department pu​r​chased 50 body cameras in 2012, and six officers were supposed to be the start of the pilot program. (In 2010, the department began purchasing and testing different models of cameras.) Yet since last years, the program has failed to get anywhere. Privacy concerns for the individual officers has been cited as an obstacle by the unions as they drag their feet. This is asinine. Public officials should not have privacy while they're at work—especially not cops.

-On Friday, Los Angeles Police Department officers shot and killed a man who may or may not have been holding a knife. The man reportedly had a 3-4 inch blade on him while he was shot. Other sources are saying ​it could have been a prop knife and that he was a well-known costumed performer who made money posing with tourists. Someone who witnessed the shooting and filmed the aftermath twee​ted that the "LAPD just murdered an unarmed man right in front of me." The knife the LAPD found had better have been heading for someone's throat in order to justify this shoot​ing.

-Mother Jones's David Corn has ​a haunting piece about witnessing a fatal police shooting of a homeless man carrying a rock. This was in the 1980s, before the age of internet outrage, back when the press was a lot more into tough on crime. Almost more shocking than Corn's account of the expendability of a homeless, seemingly mentally ill man is how disinterested both the police he spoke to, and the grand jury, turned out to be.

-The November 20 NYPD shooting of Akai Gurley was reportedly an accident, and the fact that rookie cop Peter Liang fired only one bullet makes that version of events somewhat credible. (Cops don't shoot only once if they believe a suspect is a danger—that is not how they are trained.) But according to the D​aily News, after Gurley was shot in a dark stairwell of a housing project, ​Liang went six and a half minutes without calling for medical aid and without even being in contact with dispatch. 

Instead, he apparently texted his police union rep (this is disputed). Meanwhile, Gurley's girlfriend got a neighbor to call 9-1-1. Liang and his partner Shaun Landau did not even realize the misfired bullet had hit someone, and they reported only an "accidental discharge." They also reportedly did not know the address of the housing project, and weren't even supposed to be searching inside. The Brooklyn DA has promised that the shooting will be investigated by a grand ​jury.

-On Friday, local prosecutors declined ​to press charges against a Seattle police officer who punched a handcuffed woman hard enough to break a bone in her eye. Back in June, Officer Adley Shepherd hit Miyekko Durden-Bosley after she kicked at him upon being placed in the patrol car for drunk and disorderly behavior. Shepard complained about the kick, but video of the incident remained inconclusive as to whether Durden-Bosley's foot even made contact. Shepard, a nine-year veteran of the force, was treated at the same hospital as Durden-Bosley, but he didn't have injuries. Durden-Bosley, on the other hand, was treated and then jailed for four days for assault on a police officer. (Those charges were dropped.) The local DA may be disinterested, but federal prosecutors are reportedly weighing civil rights violation charges against Shepard, who has been on paid leave since the incident.

-According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Cleveland Police Department has a lot more to answer for than even the recent fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by an officer who was seen as unfit fo​r d​uty and emotionally unstable at his previous policing job. No, the Cleveland PD has also done things like sho​ot a man in the chest over a traffic violation, then cuff him, then suspend the officer for only a day. The DOJ found s​ome 600 other questionable instances in its nearly two-year investigation of the department.

-Our Good Cop of the Week is Redditt Hudson, who spent five years with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police. Hudson enjoyed his work in some ways, but he eventually felt he had to retire due to the cavalcade of racism and excessive force he witnessed. ​Check out Hudon's piece descri​bing his experiences in the Washington Post. Hudson, by the way, now works with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the NAACP. He was such a good cop, he had to quit his job. Other would-be good cops might consider his fine example.

Follow Lucy Steigerwald on ​Twitter.