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Will outrage over Garner, Ferguson grand jury verdicts trigger systemic changes? – Part 4

December 4, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
For a broader look at how the Eric Garner case and the intersection of race and justice are resonating with Americans, Gwen Ifill gets perspectives from Candace McCoy of City University of New York and Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, for a broader look at how this latest intersection of race and justice is resonating, we turn to Candace McCoy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and Jelani Cobb, director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut.

We kind of have a split-screen of law and emotion.

Was the grand jury’s conclusion a surprise to you, Jelani Cobb?

JELANI COBB, The New Yorker: No, it wasn’t.

I was in Ferguson up until last week. And beyond that, you know, it’s well-known that it’s very difficult to get indictments against police. And we also know the history of failure to indict or failure to convict people who are guilty of offenses against African-Americans — African-American citizens.

And so it was difficult to hear the previous guest, Mr. Carter, kind of ramble through that bureaucratic double-speak and say that the video attempts to show something, but we don’t know what the grand jury experienced. We all have eyes, and we know that the person used a maneuver that is banned by the NYPD and that it culminated in this person’s death.

And no one said that the grand jury was supposed to have convicted Mr. Pantaleo for this. They simply said, was there enough evidence so there’s a trial warranted? And to say that that didn’t warrant a trial is a miscarriage of justice.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me…

JELANI COBB: So, I don’t know why he couldn’t just say that.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Candace McCoy about the idea of intent. That’s one of the questions that has come up here, whether the police officer intended to commit — to create — to murder or to kill the suspect, whether that is a valid reason for the grand jury to decide not to indict.

CANDACE MCCOY, The Graduate Center, John Jay College, City University of New York: That’s right, Gwen.

We are talking about intent. We’re talking about what is in the officer’s mind. If you’re going to convict somebody of manslaughter, you have to show that the person intended or at least recklessly allowed a death to take place.

In this case — and, of course, the grand jury standard is probable cause, more probable than not that this is the case — probably not. In fact, the officer himself said, I didn’t intend this. I didn’t intend him to die.

What we have here is a really terrible mistake and probably negligence, but that’s a civil lawsuit, and not a criminal prosecution.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Jelani Cobb to respond to that. But, also, I want to ask you to respond to this idea that the mayor put forward today about retraining the police force and whether that will have some sort of effect.

JELANI COBB: Well, I mean, here’s the difficulty.

People have known since Anthony Baez, certainly, if not known before then, and it’s the plain logical deduction that if you cut off someone’s air supply, it tends to culminate in a fatality, or at least this is a possibility. And so to say that this is just a simple mistake, there were four or five officers atop Mr. Garner.

And so, what exactly would qualify? That’s what I was wondering. If we could just be clear about the parameters, what exactly is law enforcement not allowed to do when…

GWEN IFILL: So does training speak to that?

JELANI COBB: Well, I’m not sure that it does, because the issue is not simply retraining.

If people are retrained, as this maneuver was already banned, but they don’t follow the training, and there’s no consequences for failure to follow the training, then we have accomplished nothing.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Candace McCoy to weigh in on that.

CANDACE MCCOY: Yes.

Let’s remember that there was a medical examiner report here, and the medical examiner of the city of New York took very careful note of what had happened. There are two parts of that report. And we seem to be forgetting the second part.

The first was that there had been pressure and compression on Mr. Garner’s throat. Whether it was a chokehold or some other kind of hold, I think is basically immaterial. It was a bad thing.

Secondly — and this is what people are forgetting — is that there was compression on his stomach. This is a classic case of what is known as positional asphyxia. Your viewers in Los Angeles will remember in the late ’90s, there was a series of cases in which overweight people, many of them with asthma problems, were killed when they were arrested by police and in the bad tactics.

And so it’s bad tactics. They need retrained — but — but this is not a crime.

GWEN IFILL: Well, there’s a lot of conversation going on now, the Cleveland Police Department, the report that they used excessive force, the value of body cameras as part of the conversation, federal civil rights investigations.

Does this kind of scrutiny, the protests we see tonight, Jelani Cobb, do you think that can change what happens or alter what happens next, and should it?

JELANI COBB: I mean, it should.

It’s possibly the only hope that we have. When people have no recourse, they take to the streets in protest, when the system doesn’t actually provide them with justice. And that’s the only hope people have, that by organizing, they can create enough pressure to force institutions to not behave in the way that they typically would.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

JELANI COBB: And…

GWEN IFILL: One chance for a brief response from Candace McCoy.

Sorry.

CANDACE MCCOY: I agree. I agree completely with Professor Cobb.

I think that we have to change our focus from criminal prosecution. One more body behind bars is not going to work. But he is right. There are systematic changes that we have to look at here. And we can do that.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Candace McCoy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Jelani Cobb of the University of Connecticut, thank you both.

JELANI COBB: Thank you.

CANDACE MCCOY: A pleasure.

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