Blog - There is Work to Be Done: A Response to the Eric Garner Case

There is Work to Be Done: A Response to the Eric Garner Case

Author: The Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart Category: Young Adult

Posted December 4, 2014

"Can I ask you a legal question?" my 23-year-old niece asked me.

There had been a slew of them in the past couple of weeks. "Yes," I answered.

"I thought you said the chokehold was barred."

"It is," I answered.

"Then, why didn't the grand jury in New York indict that officer?"

Just then the news reported on the incident and showed the video of the confrontation between Eric Garner and the police officer. I watched as the officer grabbed Garner around the neck and attempted to take him down. I watched as he used a prohibited chokehold. I switched to YouTube where I could slow down the video. I watched again as the officer used the banned chokehold. "It's illegal," I said.

"Why?" my niece wanted to know.

I stood up, went behind her, and began to use the banned chokehold on her. Doing it correctly was difficult because we are the same height. As I put my forearm across her windpipe, I asked, "Do you see why you can't use this hold?"

She answered, "Yes, I can't breathe."

I then moved to show her the "correct" hold -- the carotid neck restraint in which the person's neck is restrained between the forearm and the upper arm, compressing the carotid arteries to induce unconsciousness.

The chokehold was banned in the late 1970s when I was a young police officer in Washington, DC. We knew then that the hold could crush the windpipe. Every police officer was re-trained and re-certified in the use of the carotid neck restraint. As I watched the encounter between the officer and Garner, I wondered about the training the officer had received. He was shorter than Garner and would not have been able to use either hold correctly. I also wondered what information the grand jury received as I heard the Commissioner of the NYPD say that the chokehold had been banned for use by his officers.

As I watch the demonstrations in our cities, I understand yes, there is work to be done. However, I also think about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall when he was a young attorney arguing civil rights cases before the Supreme Court. When civil rights leaders wanted to work outside the system, he would have none of it. He said that we needed to make the American systems in place work for us and he did. It is again time to make the American systems work for us -- work for all people.

 In the 1980s, Lee B. Brown created Neighborhood Oriented Policing which evolved into community oriented policing or community-based policing. Billions of dollars went to local law enforcement agencies and groups that provided training and technical assistance in how to build better relationships between the police and the community. The U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service also provided training and technical assistance as did the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE). Yet, those pioneers have retired or left law enforcement and now there is little memory of those attempts to foster police-community relationships. It's like the Israelites in exile; when it was time to go back to Jerusalem, too many had no memory because they had been born in exile.

As I watch people protesting, I call for each and every one of them to contact the police chief of their jurisdiction and invite themselves to join the chief's advisory committee. If the chief does not have an advisory committee,form one. Change must occur at the top. Their voices must be heard where the power resides. I call on the church to again be in the forefront of the discussion of justice in America as it affects all those created in the image of God.

Gayle Fisher-Stewart was a police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department for 20 years. She is a member of Our Saviour, Brookland and a candidate for the priesthood.

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