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ESSAY: The Eric Garner Incident: Sentinel Calls for Greater Scholarly Support in Policymaking

Joe D. Mazza reviews the Eric Garner police chokehold case in New York City. He calls for enhanced scholarly support in policymaking.

Published onDec 01, 2018
ESSAY: The Eric Garner Incident: Sentinel Calls for Greater Scholarly Support in Policymaking


The Eric Garner incident serves as a sentinel event exposing weakness in our system of policing low-level offenses. The New York Police Department policy at the center of this encounter lacked a foundation of sound evidence. Administrative mandates forced officers to make a custodial arrest instead of releasing a low-level offender in the field. Combined, they created a condition ripe for tragic results. Custodial arrests should serve important public interests, but none are apparent here. This incident presents a call for greater scholarly partnerships with police and other stakeholders to provide studies with evidence on which better public policy can be based.

The Journal of Criminal Justice and Law is the official open access journal of the Law and Public Policy Section of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. The journal is jointly published in collaboration with the University of Houston-Downtown.
Cite this article as: Mazza, J. D. (2018). The Eric Garner incident: Sentinel calls for greater scholarly support in policymaking. Journal of Criminal Justice and Law, 2(2), 136-142.
To quote or cite page numbers, download the “Formatted PDF” version from this site and use the page numbers as indicated in that document. The “Formatted PDF” file is the journal’s official version of the article.

The last several years have seen a series of highly publicized incidents in which Black men have allegedly died at the hands of the police. These incidents have resulted in pronounced criticism of modern policing methods and tested the public’s trust in the police. Typically, the media analysis has involved a broad range of opinions – from the purely emotional to the agenda driven. In few cases has that analysis provided a thorough examination of the public policies surrounding the events. Andrew Costello (this issue) provides a thoughtful analysis of the policies surrounding the 2014 Eric Garner incident, viewed through the lens of an experienced New York City police commander. Specifically, he reviews the New York City Police Department (NYPD) policies and a state procedural law that have influenced this matter. His analysis shows how scholars, the public, and police can learn from a sentinel event to inform policy and create change. The Garner incident represents a local incident with national implications worthy of careful consideration by scholars, the police, and the public for the betterment of public policy.


According to the NYPD, on occasions before July 17, 2014, unidentified civilians reported to the police that Eric Garner was selling untaxed loose cigarettes (Costello, this issue). Garner had been arrested for this particular offense several times in the past. On July 17, as part of a coordinated enforcement effort resulting from these complaints, an undercover officer purchased cigarettes from Garner. Shortly thereafter, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, other officers, and a supervisor attempted to arrest Garner for this offense. Garner denied selling cigarettes when confronted by the officers. He went on to say, “Every time you see me you want to mess with me. … I’m tired of this. … It stops today.” Garner continued to voice his discontent until officers moved in to make the arrest. Garner then told the officers at least three times not to touch him. Pantaleo then put his arm around Garner’s neck in an attempt to subdue him – a maneuver described in the media and elsewhere as a chokehold (Chung, 2015; Peters & Eure, 2015). Garner continued to resist his arrest physically by struggling to stay on his feet and prevent the officers from gaining control of his hands until he was finally brought to the ground by four police officers. Once on the ground, Garner told officers that he could not breathe. Officers called for emergency medical services, and Garner was transported to a local hospital.

At Richmond University Medical Center, Eric Garner was pronounced dead. The medical examiner’s report and death certificate have not been publicly released. Garner’s death was reported to have been classified as a homicide (Nathan, 2014). In a statement by Julie Bolcer, a spokeswoman for the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, Garner’s death was said to have resulted from neck and chest compression and prone positioning during physical restraint by the police, with his medical conditions serving as contributing factors (Nathan, 2014). Garner’s death generated widespread outcry and elevated the chokehold to a major public concern (Peters & Eure, 2015).

The State of New York convened the Richmond County Grand Jury to examine the matter and determine if criminal charges against Pantaleo were warranted. The grand jury conducted 9 weeks of hearings and deliberations involving 50 witnesses (including four officers given immunity from criminal prosecution and 22 civilians); 60 exhibits, including video, police policies, and autopsy material; and training on the principles of law and officer use of force (Fagan & Harcourt, n.d.). In December 2014, the grand jury concluded that the evidence to charge Pantaleo with a crime was insufficient (Fagan & Harcourt, n.d.). Subsequently, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the U.S. Department of Justice would conduct a federal civil rights investigation into Garner’s death (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014). In 2015, Garner's family settled a wrongful death suit against the NYPD for $5.9 million and another against Richmond University Medical Center for $1 million (The Associated Press, 2016; Goldman, 2015).

As of this date, 4 years later, the Department of Justice has made no decision to address this matter further, but the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board has recommended an internal hearing (Mueller, 2017). Given the inertia of the Department of Justice, the NYPD asked for and was given permission to proceed with its own internal disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo (Mueller, 2017). As of the time of this writing, that administrative hearing has not concluded.


When unexpected negative outcomes happen in complex systems, a single act is rarely the cause. Such outcomes are sentinel events that may serve as indicators of system or process weaknesses (National Institute of Justice, 2017). Thoughtful and considered analysis of sentinel events can lead to change that strengthens systems and improves performance for the benefit of everyone. The Garner incident was such an event, but with media and political attention focusing almost exclusively on blame, society is being deprived of an opportunity to learn and to improve its system of justice. The death of Eric Garner demands a better review.


The stage for policy discussion is set by the cause for police action against Garner. The police were responding to quality of life complaints by using a nuisance abatement approach (Costello, this issue). This approach is based on the Broken Windows model of policing developed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling (1982), who describe a causal link between disorder and crime that necessitates aggressive policing of low-level offenses. William Bratton (1995) wrote about the influence of this model in his creation of the “Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York” strategy, which included several substrategies to address quality of life issues. He proclaimed, “We’re going to fix the broken windows and prevent anyone from breaking them again” (Bratton & Knobler, 1998).

Police strategies founded on Broken Windows are not based on evidence. The claim that Broken Windows policing leads to a reduction of crime is empirically unsupported. Bratton (1995) and Bratton and Knobler (1998) claimed that this effort resulted in steep reductions in reported crime within the city. Although steep reductions did occur, the National Research Council (2004) found that these results could not be attributed solely to Broken Windows policing because a set of large organizational changes was simultaneously implemented by the NYPD, including Compstat. Additionally, external factors were taking place at that time. A meta-analysis of disorder policing studies found that aggressive order maintenance strategies alone do not cause significant reductions in crime (Braga, Welsh, & Schnell, 2015). Providing no evidence to support the efficacy of Broken Windows policing, these findings buttress the argument of Costello (this issue) that the NYPD and other police agencies should review the need to continue similar civil enforcement programs.


The NYPD required officers to arrest certain low-level offenders (Costello, this issue; NYPD conditions of service [P.G. 209-01], 2018). This NYPD policy – an administrative regulation – translated into the custodial arrest of Garner at all costs because that was what the officers were trained and ordered to do. That policy was the driving force pitting the officers against Garner that day because it required a custodial arrest and traditional booking procedures at the stationhouse before Garner’s release or arraignment (Costello, this issue).

One must ask if requiring the custodial arrest of low-level offenders is sound policy. Presumably, the NYPD should reasonably require custodial arrest to achieve important state interests, such as when it is believed that a suspect (a) has failed to appear on other summonses, (b) is a danger to self or others, (c) has existing warrants for arrest, (d) is insufficiently identified, (e) will obstruct justice if released, (f) will not appear for this summons, or (g) requires pretrial monitoring conditions. However, according to the available records, none of these circumstances applied to Garner. An examination of the NYPD Patrol Guide (2018) reveals the reason for his mandatory arrest, assuming that the version of the policy therein closely mirrors the version of the policy effective at that time. NYPD officers were required to arrest offenders who violated the New York City Administrative Code (NYPD conditions of service [P.G. 209-01], 2018). Certainly, state interests are involved, but are they sufficiently important to warrant custodial arrest in this or similar cases?

Custodial arrest should serve important state interests and should be used judiciously after the benefits have been weighed against the costs. Decisions about what constitutes important state interests should be made by elected officials in consultation with stakeholders. Custodial arrests represent formal government control over the accused, a significant point with much influence in the founding of our nation. Arrest curtails individuals’ freedom, even if only briefly. Arrests also entail financial costs to the criminal justice system and the arrestee (CBS News, 2012; Eisen, 2014; Harmon, 2016). They may have cascading effects on the arrestee, such as loss of time at work, loss of employment, and a reduction in income and available cash for day-to-day and family expenses. Arrest records may affect the ability of arrestees to secure and maintain future employment. These effects, in turn, may influence housing, food, and child care, to name a few issues, and eventually spiral into additional costs for society. The previously listed costs do not include the intangible costs associated with arrest, such as trust in the criminal justice system and its legitimacy, especially if the police used force. The benefits of arrest should be considered against these costs. When the benefits do not outweigh the costs, an alternate method of handling the matter and entering the person into the system should be considered.


Because officers were complying with a NYPD policy to make a mandatory arrest, many have argued that Garner would still be alive today if he had not resisted. The video makes clear that while officers attempted to arrest him, Garner refused to submit to their control. He voiced his intent to resist arrest and physically attempted to prevent the officers from handcuffing him. The thought process underlying such opinions is sound, as it represents the current public policy. Society has an expectation that officers will not retreat from uncooperative offenders who do not wish to be arrested. If officers retreated, it would diminish the authority of the police and embolden offenders. We offer absolutely no opportunity for offenders to resist arrest, as evidenced by the New York State Consolidated Penal Law (CPL), under which the act is punishable by up to a year in jail in addition to any penalties for underlying offenses (CPL §205.30). We expect that officers will arrest offenders even when they resist or attempt to escape. In New York State, the people have authorized their officers to use reasonable and necessary force in such instances (CPL §35.30). Foregoing the obvious questions surrounding the chokehold, these laws underpin the policies that led to the officers’ actions against Garner.

Alleged offenders must submit to their arrest. Any debate concerning the validity of their arrests must be addressed before a judge. Alleged offenders who resist arrest invite forceful encounters that endanger themselves, officers, and bystanders. Garner, especially given his criminal history, should have known that officers would respond to his resistance with force. Still, attempts to view the Garner matter only through this paradigm miss the bigger picture. Given the known negative outcomes associated with arrests, policymakers should consider allowing officers to use alternatives in clearly defined circumstances.


The custodial arrest and subsequent use of force to overcome Garner’s resistance was a function of policy, but the mandatory arrest of Garner for his offense defies the public policy of the State of New York. The state’s preference is for officers to issue a universal summons rather than make a custodial arrest for a minor offense (People v. Hazelwood, 104 Misc. 2d 1121, 429 N.Y.S.2d 1012 [Crim. Ct. 1980]). The state policy is codified in CPL §150.20 and would have permitted officers to issue a summons/notice of violation and release Garner at the scene (NYPD conditions of service [P.G. 209-01], 2018).

Summons in lieu of arrest is a tool that allows officers and the criminal justice system greater flexibility in handling offenders and that might have been useful in the Garner matter. A large majority of agencies throughout the country have for several years permitted the summons and release of offenders instead of arrest for minor offenses (International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2016). The practice is endorsed by leading criminal justice organizations, including the American Bar Association (Phillips, 2014). Additionally, in 2013, former Chief Judge of New York Jonathan Lippman called for the release of nonviolent offenders with the least restrictive conditions possible unless evidence of threats to public safety or legitimate risks of failure to appear could be demonstrated (Lippman, 2013). Although we can never know, one can imagine how the narrative surrounding the Garner incident might have been different if the police had attempted to issue a summons or, if later they needed to arrest Garner under the authority of a judicially approved warrant for his failure to appear at the scheduled hearing.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (2016) identified several reasons supporting summons in lieu of custodial arrest. Among them are protection of the rights of the accused, reduction in the jail population and unnecessary community disruption, and evidence that the practice frees officers to resume their patrol duties while improving efficiency and reducing costs. Importantly, it may also improve officer and suspect safety, as arrest encounters have resulted in a substantial number of injuries and death (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2018; Miller, et al., 2017). Each of these reasons is salient because much anecdotal evidence indicates that our criminal justice system is overburdened, our police are understaffed and underfunded, jails are overcrowded, communities and families are being damaged, people are being hurt, and costly settlements are piling up, placing increasing hardship on taxpayers. Unfortunately, few studies have attempted to examine the effectiveness of summons in lieu of arrest at achieving these goals. Most recently, Baumer and Adams (2006) found that jail populations can be reduced when summonses are issued for certain low-level offenses instead of arrests being made. As with Broken Windows, little empirical evidence is available to show the effectiveness of the summons and release of low-level offenders.


The Garner incident is a sentinel event because it illustrates a systematic weakness in police responses to low-level offenses. It shows that we continue to establish public policies without evidence of their value and largely ignore potential alternatives when they might be preferred. We should study this and other sentinel events because they serve as a reminder that we still need to learn much more about policing and offending as they relate to public policy. In this case, in addition to a greater scrutiny of Broken Windows, we should look to determine if summonses in lieu of arrest programs for low-level offenders reduce associated burdens while ensuring community safety and defendants’ appearance in court. The Eric Garner incident is outside the usual realm of scholarly criminal justice studies, but it represents a large portion of police-offender encounters. As social science scholars, we sometimes lose sight of how we can direct our efforts to improve society. As members of the public or police, we often focus too greatly on assigning blame instead of examining underlying causes. Together, we must partner and refocus our attention on identifying and producing studies useful to the development of evidence-based public policies.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests: The author declares no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding: The author received no financial support with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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Joe Mazza is a retired police lieutenant with 18 years of policing experience. He is a graduate of Rutgers, Seton Hall, and Walden Universities. Joe has a doctoral degree in public policy and administration. His dissertation was a quantitative examination of the effect of administrative rules on racially influenced police uses of force.

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