Eric Garner, a Staten Island father of six, was tragically killed last month by New York Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo when he put the asthmatic Garner into an illegal chokehold. His death was recently ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office and Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to work with “all authorities involved” to “ensure a fair and justified outcome.”
The mayor’s response and examiner’s ruling are both indictments of Officer Pantaleo’s actions, which were already illegal according to the NYPD’s own guidelines. Officers are not supposed to use this tactic of essentially choking someone into unconsciousness to subdue them. But there were a lot of things Pantaleo and his fellow officers did that day that went beyond the extremes of bad policing.
On the day of his death, bystanders say Garner was breaking up a fight when he caught the eye of the police. The NYPD claims officers had previously targeted Garner for selling untaxed, individual cigarettes. Garner wanted to know why he was being harassed, and he paid for that query with his life. In America, we’re not supposed kill people for questioning an officer, or for speaking up for themselves – except, of course, when we do.
Implicit bias – the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our judgments and behavior, often at a level below conscious awareness – can begin to explain how the innocuous actions of one man become a deadly indictment. In a study on how implicit bias affects policing, renowned UCLA psychologist Phillip Goff found that blatant, outward signs of racism are not, in fact, the key predictor of police using excessive force in an encounter. His research finds that upwards of 90% of our actions are determined by implicit beliefs, not explicit ones. And everyone tested by Goff associated black people with more negative traits than white people.
Jelani Cobb recently wrote in The New Yorker, regarding segregation and schools: “It is clear that the notion of segregation as a discrete phenomenon, an evil that could be flipped, like a switch, from on to off, by judicial edict, was deeply naive.” The same is true for judicial switches for state-sanctioned violence against African-American men. You can’t legislate away the fact that we’ve been brought up in a culture that imbues us all with implicit bias. It is that bias which makes laws that bar chokeholds, or discourage officers from shooting unarmed people, ineffective – especially when it comes to black men.
To stop homicides like that of Eric Garner – or the NYPD chokehold deaths of Michael Stewart in 1983, and Anthony Baez in 1994 – we can’t just ban chokeholds. The NYPD already did that years ago. We need a culture change to stop them, a change in thinking about what motivates excessive force, and education around how implicit bias affects us all.
How the nuisance of selling untaxed tobacco becomes a death sentence is a riddle answered by implicit bias. Instead of seeing Garner as an individual, a father, a human being voicing his frustration at being targeted – which happened repeatedly, according to Garner in the video of the incident and statements by Garner’s widow after his death – police responded to Garner as a threat. Despite the fact that Garner did not fight back, the police seemed more focused on piling on Garner, ignoring his many cries of “I can’t breathe.” The officers chose to escalate their response – and the key word is choice, as Garner did not physically attack them – responding to his words with a violent arrest that ultimately killed him.
So far, no one has been held responsible for Garner’s death. There have been no charges, not even someone thrown off the job. The NYPD has vowed to retrain its officers on use of force, but why didn’t that training stick for the officers involved in Garner’s death the first time? Instead, officers must learn what biases they unconsciously bring to the forefront when policing communities. Do they see people to help, or people who need to be controlled? Do they see the phrase “protect and serve” as something for the community, or do they serve an “us versus them” code only protecting those on the right side of the thin blue line? Is a black man voicing his dissent just that, or is he a threat? Until the NYPD officers holding the authority to use state-sanctioned force begin to understand why they use that force differently against people of color, the senseless deaths are bound to continue.
Judith Browne Dianis is the co-director of Advancement Project.