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New Book Argues A Theory In Policing Is To Blame For Eric Garner's Death


Let me take you back to a day in July 2014 when a man named Eric Garner was stopped by two cops on the street in Staten Island.


ERIC GARNER: I'm minding my business, officer. I'm minding my business. Please, just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please, just leave me alone.

KELLY: The New York Daily News posted that bystander video on their website. And we want to warn listeners it is disturbing to listen to. You can hear Garner begging police not to touch him. You see a police officer put him in a chokehold, wrestle him to the sidewalk and press him down as other officers handcuff him. And then you hear Garner's last words.


GARNER: I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

KELLY: I can't breathe. Eric Garner was pronounced dead at the hospital later that day. The coroner eventually ruled that the death was a homicide, but no one was ever indicted in the case.

Investigative journalist Matt Taibbi writes about Garner in a new book. It's called "I Can't Breathe: A Killing On Bay Street." And when I spoke with him earlier, I started by asking Taibbi about Eric Garner and who he was as a person.

MATT TAIBBI: He was a complex, interesting, funny, flawed person, this sort of larger-than-life character who was very different than how he was portrayed in the press. He had some strange personality quirks. For one thing, he would wear his clothes until they literally fell off his body because he had a kind of phobia about spending money on himself. All of his money went to his kids. So even though he was actually making money at a pretty good clip, he looked from the outside like a complete mess. That was actually sort of a visual symbol of his devotion to his family.

KELLY: When you say he was a larger-than-life character, that's literal. He was a big guy...

TAIBBI: He was.

KELLY: ...Three hundred and fifty pounds. And you said he was complicated. He had, we should mention, a long arrest record as a drug dealer. By the time of his death, he'd moved on to smuggling cigarettes. He was selling them illegally on the street. Although crucially, as you report, he was not doing anything illegal on the afternoon that he died.

TAIBBI: The evidence suggests that what happened that day is that a more senior police officer, probably a lieutenant in the precinct down there in Staten Island, drove by, saw Garner on the street and ordered a couple of detectives to go by and pick him up. But nobody ever saw him actually selling a cigarette. And that's why he's so confused in the moment of arrest. He doesn't know why they're arresting him for the perfectly logical reason that he wasn't doing anything.

KELLY: I mean, what you're writing about here is a bigger story of how the police in New York were trained and instructed to go about policing this certain neighborhood, Staten Island, in New York, that they were being trained not just to enforce the law but to maintain order.

TAIBBI: Right. And this was a major philosophical shift that occurred in how we go about policing in this country. Up through I would say the late-'70s and early '80s, our attitude towards policing in almost all the major cities was essentially reactive. We had cops who were out there in squad cars, and when crimes happened, they tried to stop them, or they investigated them. But following the '80s and the early '90s after the spread of a theory called the broken windows theory, they wanted to affirmatively establish order everywhere.

And that meant policing little things - not just reacting to crimes after they happen but stopping people from urinating in the streets or jumping turnstiles or drinking in places in public where they shouldn't be or riding bicycles the wrong way down the sidewalk. That became the emphasis of policing as opposed to stopping serious crime.

KELLY: And there's a case to be made that that worked. Crime in New York went down.

TAIBBI: Yes, that's the case that they made and they continue to make although sociologists are very split on this issue. There's a lot of disagreement about this. A lot of people believe that the reasons why crime fell over - all over the country can't be accounted for by these programs because the drops happened equally in cities that adopted these new theories and ones that didn't. So nobody really knows why crime dropped. But that's a possible explanation.

Still, even if that's true, it doesn't justify what actually happened because what these policies actually did is they created this sort of massive interventionist scheme where police in cities like New York were stopping 500,000, 600,000, 700,000 people a year almost entirely in black and Hispanic neighborhoods and very often physically searching them as well. And they made incidents like Garner's statistically far more likely.

KELLY: And worth noting - this was something that was very familiar to Eric Garner. For years, he had been arrested many times on various offenses over the years.

TAIBBI: Yeah, Eric Garner unfortunately was a person who had rotten luck throughout his life. He had the terrible misfortune to sort of be the - almost like the Zelig of the modern law enforcement innovations. He was a crack dealer at the time when the government made crack dealers public enemy No. 1. He went off to prison in New York state when New York state was at the center of the mass incarceration movement and building prisons everywhere.

And then when broken windows came along and the emphasis of law enforcement became the small-time criminal, that just happened to be the time in Eric Garner's life when he became a small-time criminal. The police went after him over and over and over again and repeatedly vouchered his money and sent him to jail. And that was part of the background to that - the video that day was just that - his frustration over that repeated targeting.

KELLY: The sad fact is that in the three years since Eric Garner died there have been a lot of cases in this country that have added to tension between police and the people in the communities that they are sworn to serve. What is your takeaway from Eric Garner's case? I mean, what should we remember about his life?

TAIBBI: I think Eric Garner - first of all, his case was explosive. And it was, I think, the ultimate sort of Twitter age case because the video is so graphic and so undeniable that he wasn't doing anything wrong. And...

KELLY: Unlike, say, Ferguson, Mo., where we didn't actually have video of what unfolded there.

TAIBBI: Exactly. In all of these incidents up until the age when everybody was carrying cell phones, the police and the authorities always had an excuse. But in this case, you saw the entire incident from start to finish. And everybody could see what happened. There was no denying what happened. And when the officers in this case were still not indicted and there was no serious discipline handed out yet - it still could happen - people saw how the entire justice system worked.

And I think the import of this story is that it shows not just how broken windows policing operates, but how the entire bureaucracy behind the police operates. How it protects police who do wrong things. How these cases are sort of tucked away and hidden so that people forget about them more quickly. And that's what I tried to do in this book, is I tried to lay out not just how these incidents happen in a few terrible seconds, but how they happen over the course of years and decades and repeat over and over and over again.

KELLY: Matt Taibbi. His new book about Eric Garner is "I Can't Breathe: A Killing On Bay Street." Matt, thanks very much.

TAIBBI: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.