The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office said Friday that neck compressions as well as compression of the chest while in the prone position were the causes of Eric Garner’s death. Garner’s existing health troubles—asthma, heart disease, and obesity—were also contributing factors.
After watching the initial cellphone video of the arrest and subsequent shakedown and scuffle to retrain, I was almost certain the officer’s arms around Garner’s neck were not quite in a position to cause death, or even unconsciousness. Actually, I never saw (in the video) a true chokehold applied. Goes to show that even a trained eye cannot totally rely on bystander video to draw an adequate conclusion.
However, I was firmly convinced that the weight of the officers “piling on” could have indeed been enough to cause Garner’s demise. Both the chokehold and piling on tactics are dangerous when used by anyone. Also, smashing Garner’s face against the pavement was not a pretty technique, but controlling the head could be an important part of gaining total physical control of a violent suspect. The “face smash” is not a technique I’ve ever taught to police, nor do I know anyone who has. But that’s not to say it isn’t taught to NYPD officers. I have, however, seen it used by officers when a suspect was attempting to bite them.
The chokehold, as everyone should know by now, is a banned technique in most, if not all police agencies. Chokehold deaths have occurred over the years, and that should be no surprise to officials. I stopped teaching “the choke” to recruits decades ago. I’ve always believed it to be an unsafe tactic, especially when used by those who are untrained. Its use could also be questionable for people who learned the technique “years ago” but failed to practice and train and re-train in its use.
Remember, though, when fighting for your life, well, anything goes. But not when making the “everyday” arrest. For those, there are clear-cut procedures and tactics/techniques taught to every officer. Sure, rules and regulations vary from area to area, but the basics are the same.
Piling on—the use of the combined weight of several officers—is not a restraining technique/tactic that’s taught to any police officer. Actually, officers are taught to control joints (wrists, elbows, etc.) and limbs (arms and legs) using compliance techniques, and even pain to the joints, if necessary. If those tactics fail the officer must move on to a higher degree of tactic—stun guns, TASER, the wrap, baton, ASP, pepper spray, etc.
I was a master defensive tactics instructor, and I’ve trained hundreds upon hundreds of police officers and other professionals over the years. I was pretty darn good at what I did, too. And, in all my years as a police officer, I never once used a chokehold to force a suspect to comply. Didn’t need to. On the other hand, I probably went through a couple of gallons of pepper spray and carved a few dents and notches in my baton and flashlight.
Properly utilized tactics work well, and with less effort. For example, I’ve brought combative people out of car windows and through their locked seat belts. Once I even made a very large, unruly man “un-ball” his fists. This list is long, and I won’t bore you with it any further, but my point is not to babble about things I’ve done, but to explain that properly used techniques, and there are many, do not require forcing a suspect into unconsciousness.
Now, to address piling-on. Imagine lying face down (prone) on a hard, flat surface, such as a concrete sidewalk. That act alone makes breathing a bit difficult. Next, add the weight of several grown men pressing down on your torso, forcing your back toward your chest and the walkway. The sidewalk does not give, causing an intense squeezing together of the back, chest, and the organs and bone between—heart, lungs, ribs, spine, etc.
To better picture the effect this has on a human body, think of a python and how it kills its prey. The large snake coils itself around the body of its victim, and each time the captured prey exhales the snake tightens its grip. The action prevents the prey from taking a new breath of air (inhale). The reptile repeats the exhale/grip-tightening until its victim’s oxygen supply is totally exhausted. The end result is death.
This is what I saw happen to Eric Garner—officers piling on—, and what I believe caused the immediate respiratory distress that later contributed to his death (he was heard saying, “I can’t breathe”). The tone of Garner’s voice clearly indicated distress. Not like the typical suspect who attempts to escape custody by feigning illness, etc., hoping officers will release their grip. Actually, at the time Garner indicated he was experiencing difficulty breathing, the tone of his voice was much different than when he spoke to officers at the onset of the incident. He was well on his way toward dying at that point.
Many people are calling for murder charges for the officers involved in Eric Garner’s death. And, the medical examiner did indeed rule his death a homicide. However, there’s a huge misconception about the word homicide and how it relates to a criminal charge. So lets clear the air. Homicide and Murder are not the same. That’s right. They. Are. Not. The. Same.
Do I believe the officers intentionally killed Eric Garner? No, of course not.
On the other hand, are they responsible for his death. Yes. Why? Because they used techniques that are not approved by their department, techniques that have caused death in the past. In addition, there was an ample number of officers on hand to make the arrest. If the situation had been Garner against a single, or even two officers, things may be looked at differently due to the vast size difference between the officer(s) and Garner. And, had Garner attempted to flee, certain other factors might be considered in a more favorable light.
But, it is what it is. Garner is dead and his death was caused by three factors—police tactics that have been proven to be unsafe and potentially deadly, Garner’s health issues, and the fact that Garner committed a crime that brought the police to him in the first place.
I do predict we’ll see manslaughter charges for at least one of the officers. I also predict a huge settlement paid to Garner’s family. And, I think it’s safe to say we’ll see across the board changes to many officer training programs throughout the country.