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December 5, 2014

On Staten Island, mixed reaction to Eric Garner grand jury decision


Protesters have gathered across the country to express outrage after a grand jury decided against indicting Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, who died after the officer held an arm around his neck.

But on Staten Island, attitudes toward the case differ from the rest of New York City, Fordham University Law School professor James Cohen said.

Staten Island is typically more conservative than the rest of New York City and has a significant population of current and former firefighters and police officers, Cohen said.

A recent Quinnipiac poll asked if the police should receive criminal charges for Garner’s death. 65 percent of New Yorkers said they should be charged, while 42 percent of Staten Islanders supported that idea. Half of Staten Islanders said that the way the police acted toward Eric Garner was “understandable.”

Residents have also expressed more approval for the New York Police Department than the rest of New York City. About half of New Yorkers approve of local police performance, while almost 80 percent of Staten Islanders said the same.

But opinions on Staten Island are still mixed, with some residents expressing anger over the grand jury’s decision.

“It seems like that the cops have almost like a cloak of invincibility now, that the justice system is giving them that,” one man on Staten Island said.

The decision comes on the heels of the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, another case in which a grand jury did not indict a white police officer in the death of an unarmed black man.

Staten Island defense attorney Patrick Parrotta said he believed in the system, but recent events have tested it.

“These cases that evoke a lot of emotional response are very difficult. And the result of them is certainly unpredictable sometimes, and sometimes unpalatable,” he said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for retraining NYPD officers, but civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton said he wants to see bigger changes in the legal system.

“We want the Justice Department and the federal government to deal with the fact that grand jury systems on a state level are broken and seem to lack the capacity to deal with police.”

Warm up questions
  1. What have you heard about the Eric Garner case?
  2. What do you know about the police force in your community? Have you ever interacted with a police officer?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Grand juries typically consider incidents that occurred in their community. Can you think of some pros and cons of that system? How is a case like Eric Garner’s, which was heavily publicized and debated, different from other cases a grand jury might consider?
  2. How do you think events around Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri have influenced public opinion in the Eric Garner case? How are the two similar or different to you?
  3. If you were New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, how would you address the Eric Garner case? What issues would you emphasize for residents, and what actions might you take to address people’s anger and frustration?
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