It won't be easy reining in America's 'chokehold police'

U.S. authorities, from Barack Obama on down, are trying to rein in the nation's police. But they are running up against a street-cop logic that sees chokehold victims as complicit in their own deaths, Neil Macdonald writes.

In N.Y's 'I can't breathe' case, police union logic sees chokehold victim complicit in his own death

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      As President Barack Obama and other voices of authority try to reassure the nation that they can bring police abuse under control, a voice of true street-level power is speaking, too.

      That voice belongs to Patrick Lynch, and it is frightening. Americans would do well to listen.

      Lynch is the president of New York's police union, a man described by his own organization as the most powerful police union chief in the world.

      As Newsweek has put it, Lynch represents not just cops, but "what it means to be a cop in America, where guns are legal and restraint is rare."

      And to Patrick Lynch, the cellphone video of a black man locked by a white officer in an officially forbidden chokehold, and grunting repeatedly that he couldn't breathe, was essentially unremarkable. As was Eric Garner's death a few minutes later.

      "If you're speaking, you can breathe," he told a press conference, praising the grand jury that last week refused to indict one of his members in Garner's death. (A coroner had ruled the death a homicide.)

      Parse that statement, and the menace reveals itself.

      In the view of New York's police union — and, no doubt, a significant percentage of street-level police officers in this country — if you can suck enough air into your lungs to gasp out that you cannot breathe, then you must be able to breathe, and therefore you're lying, and therefore there is no reason to release the chokehold.

      Conversely, of course, if you actually cannot breathe, you wouldn't be able to speak at all, and therefore you'd be unable to communicate that to the policeman choking you, so how is that policeman supposed to realize he should stop?

      Either way, by this piece of street-cop logic, it's not the policeman's fault. It's yours. And either way, you may very well wind up dead, which is also your fault.

      Tens of thousands of protesters, carrying a collection of mock coffins, took to New York streets last week to protest against the grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner. (Jason DeCrow/Associated Press)

      Lynch made that clear, too.

      "Mr. Garner made a choice that day to resist arrest," he told the cameras.

      Had he just given in immediately, "he knew he'd go to the station house and … be out by the end of the day. But, unfortunately the choice was not a good choice and unfortunately we all live with the tragedy of that death."

      'I can't breathe'

      Well, not quite. Eric Garner doesn't get to live with anything anymore.

      An awful lot of Americans, from the tens of thousands of protesters chanting "I CAN'T BREATHE" to officials and lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, have denounced the grand jury's refusal to indict, viewing it as tacit approval of extreme, unnecessary violence.

      As U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand put it, no unarmed person should die on a New York street corner because he's suspected of some trifling offence. Garner was accosted by police for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, which he vociferously denied having done.

      But the beat cop view is that there's a larger issue here: refusal to submit.

      Garner's real crime was to tell police he was sick of being rousted, that it had to stop and, when officers moved in, to get their hands off him.

      Police tend to hold the view that citizens have no right to resist, no matter how unfairly they're being treated, and no matter how abusively police might be wielding their considerable powers.

      Try to protect yourself from a police beating, and you'll only be beaten more severely, and likely charged with assaulting your assaulter.


      I have no idea whether Patrick Lynch has spent much time reading Franz Kafka, but my guess is he would understand the treatment of Josef K., the central figure in The Trial, Kafka's masterpiece about arbitrary power and submission.

      In the story, K. is arrested and tried without being told the nature of his offence. He denounces the process, or lack of it, at his trial.

      But, by the end of the story, he is co-operating with his persecutors, right up to the point where his head is on a block, and two faceless agents of the state are trying to decide who should use the executioner's knife on him.

      "K.," writes Kafka, "knew then exactly that it would have been his duty to take the knife … and thrust it into himself."

      NYPD union president Patrick J. Lynch, shown here in an earlier photo, last week defended the grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

      It's been 100 years since The Trial was written. In modern America, police are permitted to use lethal force essentially at their discretion. They also enjoy a level of legal immunity extended to no one else.

      It is, of course, their job to deal with violent people, and they must err on the side of caution, especially if they perceive a threat. As beat cops are fond of saying, it's better to face 12 jurors than to need six pallbearers.

      You can understand that point of view. The problem is that police can't all be trusted with the kind of power they possess, and police violence in America, especially by predominantly white officers against minorities, seems wildly out of control.

      Cleveland is the perfect, and latest, example.

      Systemically abusive

      As public anger boiled across the U.S. after the Garner jury decision — just as it did following the shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — Attorney General Eric Holder appeared in Cleveland to unveil a federal investigation of its police.

      The feds flatly concluded that Cleveland's police force is systemically abusive, using far more force than necessary, which is unconstitutional.

      Further, the report concluded, "supervisors tolerate this behaviour and in some cases endorse it."

      The report describes a police sergeant firing at a victim — a victim — who fled from the house in which he'd been held captive, clad only in boxer shorts. He had continued to run, terrified, after being ordered by police to stop.

      It cites a 300-pound, six-foot-four officer, angry at a 13-year-old he'd arrested, sitting on the boy, then punching his face repeatedly once he was handcuffed in the cruiser.

      It cites officers who, after ordering a suspect to lie prone and restraining him, began kicking and pounding him.

      It cites other officers who opened fire on people trying to flee after being ordered to stop.

      U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who is stepping down soon, says the U.S. needs to have a national conversation over the use of force by police, particularly where minorities are concerned. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

      The report quotes the U.S. Supreme Court: "It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape."

      Clearly, there are officers in Cleveland and New York and elsewhere in the U.S. who disagree with those words.

      Holder made a statement that was remarkable, coming from the nation's top law enforcement officer: there are too many Americans suffering tragic losses because of police abuse.

      But Holder's ultimate solution is the same as President Obama's and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's, and the great many other politicians who've spoken out: America, they say, needs to have "a national conversation."

      Of course, they said the same thing about gun control after the school massacre in Connecticut two years ago. Go ahead, look it up. Then consider what was actually done.

      About the Author

      Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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