NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo was fired. And if you believed that Officer Pantaleo brutally choked Eric Garner to death for nothing more than selling cigarettes, then the firing came as welcome news—a small but hard-fought move toward justice.
Hard-fought because, even though cellphone videos show Officer Pantaleo’s arm around the neck of Mr. Garner, the 2014 Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the officer. The U.S. Department of Justice refused to prosecute. And the NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials found Pantaleo not guilty of an intentional strangling.
If you believed that Officer Pantaleo was responsible for the death of Eric Garner, you would have to wait over five years for accountability, which ultimately relied, not on criminal charges, but instead on a decades old NYPD policy that banned the use of choke holds. That was as much as the NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials would find Pantaleo guilty of, and for that Officer Pantaleo was fired.
Many of you are resisting the characterization that Officer Pantaleo choked Mr. Garner to death. The autopsy showed that he died of cardiac arrest. Asthma, obesity, and high blood pressure were identified as contributing factors, and medical experts disagree as to what role, if any, the choke hold played. The NYPD Commissioner who approved the firing, admitted the death was tragic and unintended. Some would argue, unforeseeable. And those who view the death of Mr. Garner as the unintended, unforeseeable, and tragic consequence of physically resisting arrest, they will not view the firing of Officer Pantaleo as reasonable. They will not see this as justice.
Same Video. Different Story.
How do people watching the same video come to such drastically different conclusions? How can they all feel a sincere sense of moral outrage? Simply, they are watching the same video but hearing different stories.
Stories provide context. They set expectations and create the filter through which we experience, predict, and judge human behavior. Police violence is no different. It is understood and judged by the stories that surround it.
Our reaction to violence is overwhelmingly influenced by the reason we attribute to the violence, whether accurate or imagined. It’s the difference between seeing a man tackled on a football field versus a street corner. It’s the awful feeling you might get seeing the police shoot an unarmed suspect, without realizing the suspect had moments earlier broken the exhausted officer’s nose and attempted to shoot him with his own gun.
Contact sports provide context and rules that audiences can quickly learn to recognize. In contrast, police use of force often requires a sophisticated understanding of laws, facts, and behavioral science to fairly judge.
People who witness police violence, like all of us, will interpret that violence in light of the stories they’ve heard—some true, some false, and some simply imagined. Like all of us, their collection of stories will come from whoever is available and willing to tell them. And, like all of us, they will subconsciously recognize and interpret evidence to confirm the truth of their stories—and ignore the rest.
People who witness police violence, like all of us, will interpret that violence in light of the stories they’ve heard—some true, some false, and some simply imagined.
Tell a Better Story
Some stories have tragically conditioned people to believe that police are targeting them because of their skin color. Their subconscious default is to characterize every enforcement action as a product of racism. They are convinced that abuse, even death, at the hands of the police are routine—even likely.
Although studies continue to challenge these perceptions, simply yelling, “That’s not true!” isn’t enough. Unless and until they experience, hear, and believe a different story, they will continue to filter police violence through the lens of abuse, oppression, and injustice. They need to hear a better story. A story delivered from trusted sources with honesty, persistence, and above all, cultural sensitivity.
Most of us understand the extraordinary challenge of correcting law enforcement stories we know to be inaccurate or incomplete. Emotional reactions to perceived injustice are too frequently immune from facts. Of course, historic racism and cultural trauma can make it increasingly difficult for some to abandon their mistrust of police. A challenge made greater in those having experienced “racial trauma;” the psychological injury attributed to experiencing, witnessing, or hearing stories of personal or institutional racism.
Now, some of you will resist any suggestion that modern police are racist or that institutional racism continues to exist. You might argue that racial disparity in the criminal justice system is a product of culture and conduct and not bias or racism. Fair enough. But when it comes to protecting people from the consequences of a perceived abuse, social progress may not matter as much as we’d like.
Because the human brain doesn’t distinguish between what is vividly imagined and what is actually happening, people who believe they are targets of racist, abusive police, can suffer from anxiety, fear, racial trauma, and severe forms of PTSD, whether the police are actually abusive or not.
Whatever trauma or offense a person might experience from exposure to police violence, it is made worse when malevolence, betrayal, injustice, or immorality are alleged…or presumed. Instances of truly outrageous, criminal misconduct by police can be replayed so frequently that viewers completely lose sight of the rarity of those events. But setting aside strategically edited and sensationalized accounts of policing, even the most routine enforcement actions can generate violent resistance and outrage when people are convinced that they are part of an unjustly targeted community.
…even the most routine enforcement actions can generate violent resistance and outrage when people are convinced that they are part of an unjustly targeted community.
Recognizing Our Stories
Most police have experienced decision making under time compressed, high stakes circumstances. These operating environments, characterized by shifting goals, uncertainty, and dynamic interactions, provide little time or opportunity to analyze response options. Instead, officers observe the circumstances until enough similarities to past experiences are recognized and then quickly, almost intuitively, execute a response (See Gary Klein’s recognition primed decision making). In other words, in very little time, they attempt to recognize the story that is unfolding and then proceed as though that story is true. Their threat assessment and response are always “best guesses,” the accuracy of which is tied to past experiences, education, and the realism of simulated training events.
Community members who believe they are witnessing racist, abusive police may similarly respond with quick, intuitive decisions and sincerely held outrage. They believe they recognize the story of abusive police, to which they respond emotionally, and sometimes physically, at the scene of arrests. Unfortunately, many do not have the benefit of training in the law, human factors, or tactics to intuitively or even rationally know the difference between a lawful use of force or excessive force. To them, a forcible arrest can seem unnecessary, disrespectful, and dehumanizing. It can be indistinguishable from an assault. This challenge can be compounded by those who clearly know the difference, but simply don’t care.
The Story of American Policing
Watching Officer Pantaleo get fired can be disorienting for those who thought they knew the story of policing. A story in which the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that officers should maintain unquestioned command at the scene of investigations. A story in which the police stand in a position of social authority and, when people refuse lawful orders, may forcibly compel compliance. Although Officer Pantaleo was found to have violated the NYPD policy against “choke holds,” it remains that properly applied vascular neck restraints are legal and are expected to reduce injury to officers and suspects with rare exception. For many, the decision to arrest Eric Garner was a routine exercise of law enforcement, and the tragedy of his death should not disrupt those basic truths.
But there is another story that is screaming for attention. It is the story of historically disenfranchised communities struggling to eliminate what they perceive as unearned social inequalities and obstacles. They sincerely view the disparities in criminal justice involvement and outcomes as products of historic racism and bias; the police being the most visible representatives of that system. Community activists focus, not on what is legally justified, but rather what they view as fair, necessary, or preventable. They maintain an implicit, and sometimes expressed, desire to save suspects from the consequences of their bad decisions; which they recognize as the by-products of limited education, broken families, and depressed employment opportunities.
The story of Officer Daniel Pantaleo may very well be the story of American policing. Is it being accurately told? Is it being heard? Is it being re-written? Until we agree on answers to these questions, we will continue to watch the same videos—and hear different stories.
For important information on neck restraint research, please see: