By William J. Morgan Jr.
The first job for police officers, above all else, is to go home alive at the end of their shift. Police officers have a very difficult, complex job and must follow rules within departmental guidelines. The case of Eric Garner, who died while police in New York City were attempting to arrest him July 17, is a prime example of the nature of police work.
Garner was suspected of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island. The death was ruled a homicide, which will no doubt cause all police to second-guess their decisions when restraining an individual.
It was alleged that Garner died due to a chokehold and positional asphyxia, and this allegation must be examined. Contributing factors in Garner’s death were asthma, heart disease and obesity.
Positional asphyxia, also known as postural asphyxia, is defined as “a form of asphyxia which occurs when someone’s position prevents the person from breathing adequately. People die suddenly during restraint by police, corrections officers and health care staff. Positional asphyxia may be a factor in some of these deaths. People may die from positional asphyxia by simply getting themselves into a breathing-restricted position they cannot get out of, either through carelessness or as a consequence of another accident.”
Upon viewing the video of the Garner arrest, it appears the officers try to quell the situation peacefully and make an arrest, and then appear to place the 6-foot-5, 350-pound Garner in a chokehold. The officer had to jump to place his arm around Garner to take him down after Garner resisted arrest, an incident that lasted no more than 12 seconds.
Police then immediately rolled the suspect onto his side, relieving pressure to the chest, which is a cause of positional asphyxia, and did not unduly remain upon him.
The autopsy of Garner disclosed that he did not have any damage to his neck bones or windpipe, therefore, that was not a cause of death. More factually, he had a “compromised cardiovascular system” as the aforementioned conditions existed. Police do not need to take these issues into account when making an arrest; if so, should police not administer a checklist of medical conditions before restraining an individual?
Police have a number of non-lethal methods of force: Tasers, batons and pepper spray; these will not eliminate deaths of suspects who have underlying or existing medical conditions that will cause deaths. This case is tragic, because a person died. However, it does not rise to the level of criminal actions by the police. Walk a mile in the shoes of police before casting stones.
William J. Morgan Jr., Ph.D., is a law enforcement officer and criminal justice professor at Erie Community College.