Following the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York Police Department officer, activists are demanding wide-reaching institutional changes to the way the department does business.
Garner, a 43-year-old black man, died on July 17 after a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, strangled him in an attempt to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes.
The incident triggered outrage and frustration, particularly after a New York grand jury revealed on Wednesday that it would not indict Pantaleo over Garner’s death. Following the grand jury announcement, thousands of protesters took to the streets, demanding that the city take action to prevent further deaths like Garner’s.
Priscilla Gonzalez, director of organizing for the group Communities United for Police Reform (CUPR), said the main issue is a culture of impunity at the NYPD.
“What we’re addressing here, long-term, is an historic lack of accountability in cases of police misconduct,” she told Al Jazeera.
Police officers, said Gonzalez, are too often given special treatment after being accused of wrongdoing.
“They don’t have to go through the same process civilians do when they’re involved in incidents of brutality and misconduct,” she said. Although Pantaleo was suspended after Garner’s death, he continues to draw a paycheck. Other officers accused of brutality have received similar treatment.
Gonzalez hesitated to prescribe any mandatory treatment for officers accused of wrongdoing, saying it would have to depend on the circumstances and the strength of the evidence against them. But she also said something had to be done to address the allegedly cozy relationship between the district attorney’s office and the NYPD.
“An elected official has an obligation to be accountable to the public, not the NYPD,” she said.
District Attorney Dan Donovan has been accused of soft-pedaling the case against Pantaleo. Saint Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch was the subject of similar accusations regarding his handling of grand jury deliberations over the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
To guarantee more aggressive prosecution of NYPD officers, some reformers have suggested that special prosecutors handle cases of alleged police misconduct, not the district attorney.
In the aftermath of the Garner decision, New York Public Advocate Leticia James wrote an MSNBC op-ed calling on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor “to investigate and prosecute cases where a police officer is accused of causing the death of, or grievous injury to, another person.”
Activists are also calling on the New York City Council to take action. The coalition known as This Stops Today, among other groups, is asking the city’s legislature to pass two bills collectively known as the Right to Know Act.
Combined, these two laws would require police officers to identify themselves during encounters with civilians and mandate that officers inform civilians that they have the right to refuse a search for which the police have no legal cause. The proposal has the support of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus.
“These bills do not change the framework cops need to engage in good policing, and do not change the existing legal requirements of probable cause for a search and reasonable suspicion for a stop,” said Council member Jumaane D. Williams in a statement. “These bills are simply meant to continue the Council’s discussion about how the NYPD can engage in better and equitable police practices in all communities across the city.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed some reforms of his own. In a Thursday letter to his constituents, the mayor said his long-term plans included “a comprehensive plan to retrain the entire NYPD to reduce the use of excessive force and to work with the community,” as well as a plan to equip police officers with body cameras.
Gonzalez described de Blasio’s reforms as a positive but insufficient step in the right direction.
“It’s not enough,” she said. “And while good, it isn’t going to the root causes of the problem, which is essentially lack of accountability and hyper-aggressive enforcement.”
A spokesperson for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the labor union for NYPD officers, said the union would not comment on proposed reforms to the NYPD.