Why Federal Civil Rights Investigations Matter

The Department of Justice is investigating the killing of Eric Garner by a NYPD officer using an illegal chokehold, leaving open the possibility of federal civil rights charges (there’s also an investigation into the Michael Brown shooting, but that seems a lot less likely to result in federal charges). Damon Root notes that this is exactly what the federal civil rights laws were intended for:

Attorney General Holder is entirely correct to launch this investigation. The video evidence in the case plainly shows a white police officer using excessive and ultimately lethal force against an unarmed, nonthreatening black suspect. The grand jury’s failure to indict is an embarrassment to the rule of law and a striking miscarriage of justice. In effect, a black man who posed zero risk to either the police or to the public was nonetheless handed a death sentence by the NYPD for the alleged petty crime of selling untaxed loose cigarettes. There’s no excuse for Officer Pantaleo’s shameful treatment of Eric Garner.

Furthermore, Holder’s decision to launch a federal inquiry is fully consistent with the original purposes of federal civil rights legislation, which dates back to the Civil Rights Act of 1866. That law was passed by the Republican-led 39th Congress in the wake of the Civil War in response to the former Confederate states’ attempts to harass and oppress the recently freed slaves by stripping them of their newfound liberty and property, denying them the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, and failing–or refusing–to provide them equal treatment under the law.

In other words, the whole point of federal civil rights law is to provide a legal check against state-sanctioned injustice, such as the egregious police misconduct that killed Eric Garner.

I agree. This is also what happened in the Rodney King case, where the police officers who savagely beat him were acquitted on state charges but found guilty of federal civil rights violations.

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  • caseloweraz

    Yes. And it is what happened after the state of Mississippi failed to prosecute the murderers of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney in 1964.

  • eric

    I’m still surprised about the NY failure. IIRC, state law makes choke holds (by police) illegal, period. The grand jury’s job would be pretty simple: observe illegal choke hold being performed => evidence is sufficient for a trial.

  • cptdoom

    From what I’ve read the grand jury apparently didn’t feel they could single out that specific officer for prosecution, even though he applied the choke hold. No, I don’t get it either.

    As an aside, the most infuriating comments I’ve heard from the right wing blowhards is that Garner wasn’t being choked because he could say “I can’t breathe.” Putting aside the medical examiner’s finding that the chokehold was the cause of Garner’s death, it’s clear these idiots have no clue what having an asthma attack is like. I’ve used the exact same phrase when having an attack, which is a terrifying experience. Unlike choking on food, during an attack your lungs are filling from inside, making each breath less useful. That leads to a sense of total desperation as you try to get assistance from those around you. My attacks have all occurred during games in which I was playing so I always had that assistance. I can’t imagine how much more terrifying it would be for someone to be trying to cut off your limited air supply at the same time.

  • JPS

    Shortly after the acquittal of the police officers in the state Rodney King beating trial I read a newspaper column by a noted crime writer (whose name I, of course, can’t remember). He sat through every day of that trial and said that as they were charged there was no way the state was going to get a conviction. IIRC they weren’t charged simply with “police brutality” but something really arcane.

    I wonder today if it was something similar to the way the DAs have presented police shooting cases to grand juries to assure no indictments.

  • pita

    My understanding is that the problem with these grand jury meetings is that the prosecution presented them with every scrap of evidence in the case, something that is mind-bogglingly out of the ordinary. I believe that the grand jury saw the sheer amount of evidence presented and assumed that there must be something wrong if all of this exculpatory stuff is coming from the prosecutor. Wouldn’t you suspect something was amiss if you were used to seeing only inculpatory evidence and now suddenly the prosecutor’s own evidence is going at least partly the other way? That also seems to be part of why it takes grand juries so long in these cases to decide.

    I personally wonder whether all grand juries shouldn’t be presented with available exculpatory evidence, but it is incredibly unfair that only police cases seem to be run this way. It definitely sounds like the feds need to convene and ensure a more typical grand jury proceeding.

  • brewlord

    It didn’t help that it was Staten Island.Not really known as a bastion of liberal thought.Currrent Representative is Michael Grimm.Currently under indictment and known for threatening reporters.