As the takedown of Eric Garner, 43, on Staten Island reverberates across the metropolitan area, it is clear that New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton faces a huge challenge to train America's largest police force in the art of "active listening" and in addressing "the needs of people asking for help."
Can Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio really change entrenched police attitudes? Actually, they don't have much choice. Many city residents were already angry about the NYPD's stop, question and frisk program championed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio and Bratton sought to defuse that fury with a program encouraging cops to treat citizens with more respect as the city also ratchets up enforcement of quality-of-life crimes.
But the Garner case indicates that old attitudes run deep. A cellphone video that went viral last week shows a police officer using what looks like a banned chokehold to subdue the 350-pound suspect after cops approached him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.
As they take Garner down, he protests repeatedly that he can't breathe. Then he is still. In a second video, we see officers standing over Garner for several minutes without offering aid. That video also shows cops chatting jovially in the background while Garner lies unmoving on the sidewalk. And perhaps worst of all, it shows the plainclothes cop who grabbed Garner around the neck waving sarcastically to the camera. When an ambulance crew arrives, we see no attempt to aid Garner's breathing. He's rolled away and later pronounced dead.
Caution is advised about judgments. We don't know yet exactly what caused Garner's death. And we don't know why cops and ambulance workers seemed slow to act. The Staten Island district attorney and the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau -- among others -- are investigating. But what's indelible are those shots of NYPD officers standing around while a man dies. Bratton faces a huge job.