Eric Garner

Would a legal ban on chokeholds change anything?

There are a lot of well-meaning anti-police brutality advocates on Twitter voicing their dismay over Mayor de Blasio’s veto threat for a legal prohibition on the use of chokeholds by NYPD officers.

I can sympathize with their position, although as someone who has spent the last 4 years campaigning to end marijuana prohibition, I can also kind of see where (I think) the mayor is coming from. Prohibitions don’t change behavior, and do more to injure and alienate communities than bring them together over change.

But I think all of this misses a much larger and more important point about law enforcement reform. In order for any of these piecemeal reforms to work, there need to be changes at every step along the way of the criminal justice system. Imposing new accountability policies and laws on police violence will be meaningless if they’re not used to indict, try and convict cops who commit crimes.

I think body cameras are the perfect example of this dynamic in action. Here we have a reform that nobody with half a heart could really argue with. The theory goes that making cops wear body cameras is a relatively easy way to capture bad cops in the act, and have video evidence for trial…

… IF that trial ever happens. Besides the fact that cops can just turn the cameras off, as they have been known to do, the video evidence is meaningless if grand juries see it and still decline to indict cops. See: the tragic case of Eric Garner. On the day the NYPD announced it’s pilot program for body cameras, a grand jury in NYC declined to indict an officer who literally choked a man to death on camera.

So yes, let’s fight to reign in the use of chokeholds. Sign me up! But let’s not kid ourselves that a chokehold ban at any level will mean not advance efforts to hold police accountable if they carry no weight with judges and juries.

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