In a study of registered voters across New York State, a majority of respondents said that police officers involved in the 2014 arrest and death of Mr. Eric Garner should have been indicted; after watching video of the encounter, that proportion jumped from 57 percent to 71 percent. A majority of respondents supported Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call for expanded authority to appoint a special prosecutor in cases where police are involved in civilian deaths. The study by graduate students at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health is perhaps the first to explore voter opinion around police accountability in the context of an arrest video. Results are published online in the Journal of Social Service Research.
[Photo: Dr. Les Roberts]
Under the tutelage of Dr. Les Roberts, Mailman School professor of Population and Family Health, the students conducted door-to-door surveys of 119 registered New York State voters with sample selection proportional to the state’s population size. Surveyors assessed whether respondents were familiar with the case (85 percent were), if they had seen Mr. Eric Garner’s arrest video (74 percent did), whether they thought the officers involved should face trial (57 percent agreed), and whether respondents agreed with Governor Cuomo’s proposal to make Executive Order 147 (EO 147) permanent.
“Given the unfortunately polarized state of the nation surrounding police brutality,” the authors write, “it is imperative that policy and lawmakers throughout the country generate legislation that considers the views of their constituency to hold law enforcement officers accountable for their actions.”
During the survey, students asked respondents if they could show them the 51-second video (with audio) of Mr. Eric Garner’s interaction with police; respondents were cautioned about violent content and given background on the Garner case and EO 147. The bystander-recorded video begins before the moment of physical confrontation and shows New York Police Department (NYPD) Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is White, administering a chokehold on Garner, an African-American, and forcing him to the ground. Garner is repeatedly heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” before losing consciousness and later dying.
The 13 African-Americans interviewed were twice as likely as Whites to believe the officers should have gone to trial. However, after watching the video, this difference reduced by 80 percent, to 1.2 times more likely. “Most of the difference was done away with a 51-second video,” says Dr. Roberts. “I find it incredibly encouraging that if you can get people on a politically charged issue to look at the same evidence that the differential in the lenses that they carry with them can largely disappear.”
The physical force police used on Mr. Eric Garner was the number-one factor respondents cited when discussing their opinion as to whether officers should face trial. It was also the number-one factor cited for respondents who changed their mind from “Don’t Know” to “Yes” after watching the video.