What the Garner Decision Means for Minorities and the NYPD

July 16, 2019

Professor Candace McCoy, a criminal justice researcher who served as director of policy analysis for the Office of Inspector General for the NYPD, weighs in.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced today that it would not bring criminal civil rights charges against the New York Police Department officer in the 2014 death of Eric Garner. The long-awaited decision drew strong reactions in New York and across the country.

We invited Graduate Center Professor Candace McCoy (Criminal Justice), a specialist in criminal justice policies, to answer some questions related to the decision. McCoy recently returned to teaching after serving for two years as director of policy analysis for the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, the independent oversight agency established by New York City Council in 2015, soon after Eric Garner's death.

The Graduate Center: What are the big takeaways from the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute the police officer in the Eric Garner case?

McCoy: Two things: First, this is a decision by the federal Department of Justice that it is unlikely a jury would convict NYPD Officer Pantaleo of any federal crime. New York state prosecutors already decided the same thing. It is important to remember that, in order to convict anybody of a crime, a jury must decide unanimously that “beyond a reasonable doubt” a crime was committed and the accused intended to commit it. Given the evidence available in this case, the federal DOJ's decision is probably reasonable. 

Second, if the case had gone to trial and then the jury either acquitted or could not reach a unanimous verdict, the media circus and acrimony generated would not be helpful to anybody on any side of the issue.  I believe this probably figured into the DOJ decision.
GC: What effect is this decision likely to have on the NYPD? 

McCoy: I believe it will have little effect. Instead, the strongest effect will be felt from the internal disciplinary hearing within the police department, in which the department seeks to fire Officer Pantaleo for using a chokehold, which is against department policy. It isn’t a criminal case like the DOJ or the state prosecutors were considering. If the department’s allegations are upheld, Pantaleo will be fired. That will have a ripple effect on the approximately 50,000 people who work for the NYPD much more than the extremely unlikely possibility of a criminal conviction would. Think about it: If you violate a company policy in your workplace, are most afraid of being fired or maybe being charged with a crime? Pantaleo is probably going to be fired, and that would make fellow NYPD employees think twice.

GC: It has been five years since Eric Garner’s death. Has policing or police policy changed in that time, particularly in New York?

McCoy: Yes, drastically. Recall that Pantaleo was trying to arrest Garner for illegally selling untaxed “loosie” cigarettes. This is a minor crime, what NYPD calls a “quality-of-life crime.” It is the outcome of the discredited broken windows theory, which posits that serious crimes decline if police suppress all kinds of low-level disorder and minor offenses. The NYPD used this ideology in attempting to justify its aggressive stop-question-and-frisk program. The Garner case was an example of arresting a person for a non-violent, minor crime. The federal court in the cases of Floyd v. New York and Daniels v. New York held that these aggressive stop-question-frisk practices were unconstitutional because they were used almost exclusively on people of color. Since then, the NYPD has reversed its stance, and the numbers of stop-question-frisks have declined drastically. And with what result? The crime rate has not gone up, and has even continued down!
GC: Are minorities in New York safer than they were five years ago? 

McCoy: Yes, due to the declining crime rate  But there continues to be serious concern with shootings by young men of color in the most deeply disadvantaged neighborhoods of New York City. These pockets of violence can be addressed only if the people in those neighborhoods are willing to work with the police to do deep investigations and intervene in the violence. We do not yet know whether the Neighborhood Policing initiative will help achieve lower shooting rates.

Regarding police interactions with minorities, the answer lies in the data about use of force. As part of the Floyd order, federal judge Shira Scheindlin ordered the NYPD to keep a record of every time an officer uses force against a person, whether the force is deadly force or not. The system has been operating only a few years now, and it is hard to make any firm conclusions yet. But preliminary indications are that force is declining.  There could be many reasons for that, not anything related to the Garner case, but in any event it is promising.
GC: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

McCoy: I would like to say that I cannot imagine what it is like to see your child dead, dead at the hands of law enforcement, and killed virtually in a viral videotape that millions of people watch over and over and over.  It would break me forever. But Garner's mom, Gwen Carr, has been strong and carried forward in her quest to reform the  police.  She is amazing, and I applaud her.