I Can’t Breathe: The Case for Police Cameras


BOLOGNA — A Staten Island grand jury refused to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo on Wednesday for the July 17 death of Eric Garner, just a little over a week after the announcement that the grand jury in Ferguson, MO chose not to indict Darren Wilson for his role in the death of Michael Brown. At first glance, the cases seem similar: Both Garner and Brown were black Americans, and both Pantaleo and Wilson were white police officers. What is the difference between them? While the facts of the Ferguson case remain murky with eyewitness testimony supporting both sides, an objective and unimpeachable eyewitness account is available in the New York case, on YouTube.

A bystander recorded Garner’s death and put the videos online, showing the whole world Garner’s last moments. Garner had allegedly been selling untaxed cigarettes when he was confronted by police officers. Holding up his hands, Garner asked the police not to touch him and backed away from them. From behind, Pantaleo put him into a chokehold and three other officers joined in to tackle Garner to the ground where he repeatedly cries out that he cannot breathe. Garner, an asthmatic, died shortly thereafter. In the wake of the Ferguson decision and the recent push to require police to wear cameras, the presence of video evidence showing the chain of events in this New York leads some commentators to claim that it will not change anything, but they are all missing the point.

While it is true that having video evidence showing Garner’s death did not prevent a grand jury from releasing Pantaleo from any criminal charges, that video is not without value. Unlike Ferguson where the testimony was murky and the evidence now released by the prosecutor seems to support Wilson’s claims of self-defense, there can be no doubt in anybody’s mind what happened to Garner. Cameras do not prevent police abuse on their own, but they do hold them accountable for their actions and provide evidence of wrongdoing.

The internet is full of recordings that honest citizens make of their interactions with police. In instances where the police do not initially know they are being recorded their behavior changes almost instantly when they find out. They are then more respectful, more understanding, and a better example of how a public servant should act. Requiring every police officer to wear a camera that records all of their actions and interactions would drastically change the police dynamic around the country. It would both protect citizens from abuse of authority by corrupt police and protect honest police from wrongful accusations against them.

Instead of claiming that the case for mandatory police cameras is dead, the Eric Garner case should be the rallying point for protesters calling for greater police accountability. The system does not change overnight, but had the New York police officers all known that their every action was being recorded everywhere they went, it surely would have caused them to think twice and may have saved a man’s life. Police are just people. Some are truly public servants who would never do such a thing, some have an axe to grind with some group, and some can be dissuaded from acting improperly by the simple knowledge that someone is watching them.

The story in New York is such that there is reason to hope reform is possible. While Michael Brown’s family pleaded with protesters for peace, Missouri burned and chaos ruled Ferguson. Crowds heeded the call from Garner’s family that protests be peaceful, and the looting and riots that marred the message in Ferguson were absent, allowing the story to concentrate on what really matters: Race continues to be a systemic problem in the United States, police militarization continues to be a systemic problem in the United States, and there are a number of relatively simple reforms that can be implemented to bring more accountability to our police. More steps will come later, but society needs to handle what is in front of it right now before it can move on to the next one. Police swear to protect and serve the communities in which they live but as Ronald Reagan most famously said, “trust, but verify.”

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