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Op-ed: Two years after Eric Garner's death, continuing a quest for justice

Since Eric Garner’s death, New York City has toughened measures to prosecute police brutality. Public Advocate Letitia James explains there's still more to do.
Rev. Al Sharpton and mother of police chokehold victim Eric Garner, Gwen Carr lead a march two years after his death in the Brooklyn borough of New York, July 16, 2016. (Photo by Bria Webb/Reuters)
Rev. Al Sharpton and mother of police chokehold victim Eric Garner, Gwen Carr lead a march two years after his death in the Brooklyn borough of New York, July 16, 2016. 

Two years ago today, Eric Garner was placed in a chokehold until he died, pushed down to the ground by four plainclothes police officers who had initially approached him to see if he was selling loose cigarettes. A stop for what could have been at most a minor offense suddenly escalated into lethal action — pressing Mr. Garner’s face to the ground and crushing his chest while he repeated “I can’t breathe” 11 times. 

At that moment, those four officers were seemingly propelled by over aggression and their instinctual biases, taking life and death into their own hands. In the past two years, there have been too many stories like these — most recently, the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

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Since Eric Garner’s death, we have toughened measures to prosecute police brutality after it occurs, but we still have a ways to go in preventing the repeat of such incidents in the first place. Last year, my office successfully advocated for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate incidents of police brutality, and New York became the first in the country to incorporate this position into its state government. And the NYPD has also modified its training practices to include a greater focus on de-escalation tactics.

But now that we have developed procedures for dealing with police and civilian conflicts immediately as, and after, they unfold, we need to focus on tending to the larger picture: The critical need for trust between police officers and the communities they police.

Building trust involves many intangible factors, but we can move towards our common goal with a few concrete changes — first, by requiring every police officer to wear a body camera, in New York City and around the country. In 2014, in the aftermath of Eric Garner’s death, my office was the first to call on the NYPD to require officers to wear body cameras. The NYPD has begun the process of launching this initiative, but we still have yet to see its universal realization.

Each day, millions of police officers do the selfless work of putting their lives on the line to protect civilians, frequently responding to or preventing crises completely with no recognition. Our call for a universal body camera requirement is not to call into question the integrity of every police officer, but rather, to instill confidence in all communities that when police action is taken, that action is warranted. And if the action is not warranted, and results in gratuitous violence, that individual officer will be held accountable, and the relationship between the police and civilians will be all the stronger for it.

Footage from body cameras can also serve to exonerate our police officers from false accusations. The vast majority of our men and women in uniform are doing the right thing For this to work, we need body cameras that stay on during police encounters, and the public needs access to footage.

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We must also address the very real unconscious bias that exists within every person.

Across the country, companies from Google to NASA are acknowledging this reality and training employees on how to recognize personal assumptions, how they impact our daily lives and the decisions we make, and how we can work to lessen these effects. The reflex of police officers, when making the decision whether to use force and on what scale, must not be a result of instinctive bias, but on objective and discernible factors. As the enforcers of law and order, they have to adhere to the letter of the law and minimize the taints of biases and life long social conditioning.

Especially at this time in our country — when we are devastated by violence both from police officers and from the shootings of innocent police officers in Dallas — we cannot be divided by the false belief that there are two competing narratives: Supporting our police or advancing civil rights for all. This is not a fight for one group over another, but for all of us, for the integrity of our country.

Two years after the death of Eric Garner, we have made progress in bringing transparency and accountability to our criminal justice system, but our quest for unity and justice is not complete. Only when we ensure that the mistakes of our past are not the vision for our future, will we truly  have achieved justice.

Letitia “Tish” James is the New York City Public Advocate.