Grand Jury refusals to indict in the choke-hold deaths of black men at the hands of white policemen in Staten Island and upstate New York nearly three decades apart.
Jimmy Lee Bruce, meet Eric Garner.
You’ve got a lot in common. You’re both black men from New York state. Both of you had an encounter with police officers over some comparatively minor matter. Neither of you had a weapon. You both gave the police a hard time and had what is described as a “choke hold” applied to you by an officer. You both died as a result of that use of official force.
Interestingly, those police officers had some things in common as well. They were all white. None of them were trained in the use of the choke hold, which was prohibited by their respective police forces. Also, none of them were indicted on any charges by a grand jury in connection with your deaths.
The only thing separating the two of you is time. A little more than twenty-seven years.
Jimmy Lee Bruce died in the back of a patrol car near Middletown, N.Y., on Dec. 13, 1986. He was 20 years old. He and a group of friends from Ellenville, N.Y. had gone to a movie theater in a mall outside Middletown. The group became rowdy. There was drinking involved. Off-duty Middletown police officers acting as security guards escorted the group out of the theater, where a scuffle ensued. An officer applied the choke hold to Bruce and tossed him in the back of the police car that had brought two on-duty Town of Wallkill police officers to the scene.
The police then drove around for 7 and a half minutes looking for Bruce’s friends. When they returned to the theater, a state trooper, who had also arrived on the scene, shined a flashlight in the back of the patrol car and noticed the young man was not responding to the light. Police rushed him to a nearby hospital but attempts to revive him failed.
Two months after the incident, an Orange County grand jury began considering whether any of the officers did anything criminally wrong in connection with Bruce’s death. The grand jury determined that none of the officers did anything criminally wrong because none of them had received any training in the proper application of what they benignly referred to as the “sleeper hold,” nor had they received training in what could result from the improper use of this dangerous hold. The verdict: it was an accident.
Which brings us to Eric Garner, who at 43 was somewhat older than Bruce. Garner was someone known to the police in his Staten Island neighborhood as a familiar problem—mostly for selling loose cigarettes on the street and getting mouthy with police who told him to stop. On July 17 of this year, Garner, the father of six, got mouthy and maybe more when a police officer told him to stop selling the cigarettes. The officer applied the choke hold. Garner went down. A witness taped the incident on a cell phone and caught Garner, an asthmatic, exclaiming,
“I can’t breathe!”
A coroner ruled the death a homicide.
A Richmond County grand jury this month determined—despite the video—there was no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the police officer. This ruling, coming on the heels of a similar case in Ferguson, Mo., and in the wake of a number of deaths of young black males at the hands of white police, has spurred large public demonstrations across the country and around the world. “Justice!” is the cry.
But what is justice?
For sure, it means eliminating any doubt of conflict of interest in the future by having special prosecutors, not local district attorneys, handle cases involving deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of local police officers. This would protect police, prosecutors, and the public. But that’s not nearly enough.
Shortly after Garner’s death, William Bratton, New York City police commissioner, told the New York City Council that he was calling for a
“fundamental shift in the culture of the department”
in the wake of the chokehold killing of Garner. That “shift” will include three days of annual training for every police officer who works patrol on:
- How to talk to the public
- How to de-escalate tense situations
- How to use force.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Nearly three decades ago, I wrote an editorial for The Times Herald-Record in Middletown about the grand jury ruling on Jimmy Lee Bruce’s death:
“Your son’s death resulted because the police didn’t know what they were doing, not because they intended to kill your son. Case closed. The system worked. Do you buy that …?”
Yet today, the head of the largest police force in the country tells us that men and women going through New York City’s Police Academy are not trained on how to talk to the public. They are not taught how to de-escalate tense situations. They aren’t instructed on how to use force properly.
How then are they supposed to do their job?
Police work can be dangerous. Many officers handle it daily with sensitivity and professionalism. But justice, it would seem to me, should begin with preparing all officers to deal with likely streets encounters and not simply give them firearms training. Certainly arming them with military-grade weaponry that creates an us-versus-them situation doesn’t help. This can lead some police officers to forget that they, indeed, are also us.
To protect and serve is the mission of police. The mission must begin with a certain mindset. It astounds me that Bratton still has his job after his admission before the City Council. Not only did he say his officers aren’t trained to deal with tense situations and how to properly use force, he actually asked for 1,000 more officers and $25 million for instructors and overtime to cover posts while patrol officers are receiving three days of annual training. If it were up to me, I’d provide the department with the money and the positions and get rid of the commissioner, who all of a sudden realizes he needs to change the “culture” of his department.
The pressures of policing in Ferguson, New York City, and Middletown are different, but the answers are the same. Justice for all must begin with an emphasis on diversity in police recruiting, so diverse populations can feel they at least have a voice in their own protection. The diversity of the crowds demonstrating in response to the Garner case gives credence to that. Justice also means providing the training Bratton acknowledges his officers need today—the training the officers in Middletown needed on Dec. 13, 1986.
The outrage expressed by demonstrators over the grand jury decision in the Garner case is magnified by having known the story of Jimmy Lee Bruce. Have we learned nothing in all that time? Should Jimmy Lee Bruce have reacted differently when confronted by police? Hindsight would suggest yes. The same goes for Eric Garner. But being rowdy in a movie theater, selling loose cigarettes, and being confrontational with police are not capital crimes.