Monday, December 8, 2014

What Caused Eric Garner's Death

Marc Fitch, writing at The Federalist, is a mental health worker who trains others in how to restrain difficult patients. He offers his expertise to clarify why Officer Pantaleo was not indicted by the grand jury in the death last summer of Eric Garner in New York. What he says makes sense. Here's the short version:

Garner didn't die from a chokehold as has been assumed by many, including me. Garner died because the officer's weight was on Garner's back and that weight plus Garner's obesity prevented him from getting air into his lungs. This is called Restraint-Related Positional Asphyxia.

As Fitch describes it:
Eric Garner’s death was ruled a homicide due to a chokehold and chest compression. However, while most media outlets have been focused on the chokehold, many have ignored the dangerous, yet overlooked, chest compression known as Restraint-Related Positional Asphyxia... it doesn’t appear that the officer held onto Garner’s throat long enough to directly cause his death. Rather, restraint-related positional asphyxia is the result of the patient being face down on the ground or having someone put his weight on the individual’s chest, leaving the patient unable to expand his or her chest to inhale. In this way (and if this is truly the case), the death could be ruled a homicide (death caused by another human being) without being intentional murder.

Officer Daniel Pantaleo is seen in the video first putting Garner in a chokehold and the group of officers wrestling him to the ground. However, once face-down on the concrete to put the cuffs on, Pantaleo is kneeling on Garner’s upper back and head. It was at this point that Garner began to say he couldn’t breathe.

Face-down on the ground, the patient is often unable to expand his chest to take a breath. This condition is exacerbated by people piling on top of the patient in an effort to keep him or her down, the patient’s weight and health conditions, and his or her stress level at the time. Obviously, Garner was in a stressful situation at the time, which would result in increased blood flow and heart rate. Those would, in turn, cause his breathing to become more rapid and strained. He also had officers placing their weight on top of him as they tried to place the handcuffs on him. Garner was about 350 pounds; his own body weight alone would have made it difficult to expand his chest when face-down on concrete. The added weight of the officers increased this weight and probably made it impossible for a body to withstand.

The police, however, put a suspect face-down in order to handcuff him. Whether or not this can be avoided through new tactics, I don’t know. To some degree it seems necessary in order to facilitate the arrest, but the dangers are amply demonstrated.
This raises a couple of questions. Were the officers following proper procedures? Were they negligent in not heeding Garner's claims to be unable to breathe? I don't know, but I simply have to ask myself what I would think were that my father or my son whose pleas were being ignored by the police. I'm pretty sure I would conclude that they used excessive force. Does that merit an indictment? Only if there was reason to believe that a conviction for manslaughter could be won in a criminal court and this would probably mean that it would have to be proven that proper procedures were not followed. The grand jury apparently felt this was not achievable.

Nevertheless, the whole episode is deeply troubling.

Yes, Garner was breaking a typically stupid bureaucratic ordinance enacted to prevent people from escaping paying a tax to the city on cigarettes. Yes, the police must enforce the law even if it is a stupid bureaucratic ordinance. Yes, Garner was wrong to resist arrest. Yes, Garner should not have allowed his weight to balloon to 350 lbs., but granting all that, a man is dead as a result of the police having ignored his cries that he couldn't breathe. As Fitch says, "having him face-down on the concrete for an extended period of time while screaming that he couldn’t breathe can be seen as negligence on the part of everyone involved."

Even though the grand jury didn't indict, Fitch suggests that Garner's family has a good civil case against the officer and NYPD. In any case, there seems to be no justification for turning this tragedy into a racial issue, but that won't stop the Al Sharptons of the world from doing just that. UPDATE: As if to make that last sentence prophetic here's Eric Garner's widow trying to make the point that her husband's murder was not racial and Al Sharpton trying to convince us that it is: