NEW YORK - The police killings of two unarmed black men came barely three weeks apart, generating immediate and potentially volatile outrage.
But compared with the violent aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the fallout from the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York now seems notable for what’s been absent: no guns pointed at raging protesters, no billowing tear gas, no lengthy delay in revealing an officer’s name, no National Guard troops.
The relative calm in New York followed a carefully calibrated response by city and police officials intended to neutralize possible unrest. The response drew on the lessons from other high-profile use-of-force cases involving black victims that roiled the city in the late 1990s.
“What you want in a democracy is the ability to express your concerns, but you don’t want it to spill over into disorder,” Police Commissioner William Bratton said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I think we’ve had a very informed and reasonable response to the issues raised by everybody. There’s been no violence.”
Initial outrage over Garner’s July 17 death was fueled by an amateur video showing an arresting officer appearing to put him in a chokehold, banned under police policy, and Garner gasping “I can’t breathe” before falling unconscious. The next day Mayor Bill de Blasio postponed a family vacation, spoke with black community leaders and called a news conference with Bratton.
De Blasio, a Democrat, called the death a “terrible tragedy” and the video “very troubling.” Bratton conceded “this would appear to have been a chokehold.” Both promised a thorough investigation.
Officials say police commanders reached out to community activists and offered condolences to Garner’s family. On July 19, two days after the death, the New York Police Department released the name of the officer and announced he had been placed on desk duty while a prosecutor determines whether to bring criminal charges. On July 31, de Blasio and Bratton sat next to the Rev. Al Sharpton at a City Hall roundtable about community concerns.
Demonstrations after Garner’s death have been peaceful, even after the medical examiner ruled it a homicide. A rally in Times Square last week protesting the deaths of Brown and Garner resulted in only five arrests for minor offenses and no serious clashes.
NYPD officials said they’re in contact with organizers of a Sharpton-led march planned for Aug. 23, an effort to preserve calm headed by a Community Affairs Division staffed with hundreds of officers citywide.
Activist Joo-Hyun Kang, of Communities United for Police Reform, said the department’s record on dealing with outrage over possible brutality is checkered at best, pointing to an ugly clash last year between police in riot gear and a bottle-throwing crowd after the police slaying of a teenager in Brooklyn.
The emphasis on keeping order after Garner’s death “fails to address the racial profiling that caused it in the first place or how these cases send the message that police officers are above the law,” she said.
The challenges harken back to the torture of Abner Louima with a broken broomstick by an officer in a police station bathroom in 1997 and the death of Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets fired by four white officers searching for an armed rapist in 1999.
Both cases sparked demonstrations resulting in hundreds of arrests and frayed then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s already tense relationship with the black community.
But Howard Safir, police commissioner under the Republican Giuliani amid both crises, says conditions could have been worse if city and police officials hadn’t taken swift steps to keep the peace.
During a closed-door meeting after the Louima assault, it was decided he and the mayor should visit Louima in the hospital and meet with community leaders in Brooklyn, Safir recalled.
Similarly, the pair decided to attend Diallo’s funeral after the administration concluded, “This one has legs and we have to get on top of it real quick,” he said.
One measure used to quell unrest was to negotiate with Diallo demonstrators and persuade them to use designated protest areas policed by officers in what are called soft uniforms â windbreakers and baseball caps.
The department then, as now, also benefited from racial diversity in its ranks, experience with crowd control at large events including the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square and a robust community affairs operation geared toward developing relationships in communities before tragedy strikes, Safir said.
“In the final analysis, police officers are human beings who make mistakes,” he said. “You have to be prepared to deal with it.”