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We 'can't breathe' either

As many times as it has been shown on television and observed online, the shaky cellphone video of police officer Daniel Pantaleo taking down 43-year-old Eric Garner in a chokehold — with the large man who was asthmatic pleading, "I can't breathe" — remains painful to watch. Given that horrific video, it's difficult to understand how a Staten Island grand jury could deem the evidence unworthy of a criminal indictment of any kind in Mr. Garner's death.

The decision is all the more shocking for a host of reasons: The 29-year-old officer in question employed a tactic that his department banned in 1993. Mr. Garner was being questioned by police for nothing more serious than a tax violation for selling individual cigarettes on the street. And, perhaps most tellingly, Mr. Garner was black and Mr. Pantaleo is not, and this case comes on the heels of a non-indictment in a similar case in Ferguson, Mo., and the death of a 12-year-old black youngster by police in Cleveland.

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There are two obvious conclusions to draw from the decision. The first is that whatever ails the relationship between the police and the African-American community, whether it's in Missouri, Ohio or Maryland, is not going to be cured by video alone. It may be an important first step — had it been employed in Ferguson, for example, we might have many fewer questions about what actually happened — but evidently, it's not enough by itself. Had a camera been pinned to the chest of every officer on the scene, it's doubtful that they collectively would have produced any more damming evidence than what had already been viewed by most of the nation.

Secondly, the response of authorities in New York City — particularly by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who immediately recognized and displayed a personal understanding of the historic distrust of police by many in the black community, the reasons behind it and a willingness to take actions to address it — helped defuse tensions immensely. The grand jury's decision produced widespread protests Wednesday evening but not the violence and rioting that took place in Missouri when a grand jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Those who did protest have already raised a number of issues that deserve attention. One of the most fundamental is whether cases of possible police misconduct should be pursued by local prosecutors who are going to be naturally sympathetic toward local police officers. After all, prosecutors and police work together on a daily basis, and even those state's attorneys who believe themselves independent and unaffected by those ties are still compromised by the perception of favoritism. Bringing in an outside prosecutor would correct that situation. It's also reasonable to question whether the grand jury system is functioning correctly. A group of citizens hearing testimony, viewing evidence and deliberating may well have acted properly, but even if Mr. Pantaleo did not deserve to be indicted based on a full accounting of the evidence and not just one video, the public has no way to judge because the proceedings took place behind closed doors.

There's a role for the federal government to play in this as well, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was correct to open a civil rights investigation into Mr. Garner's death. That doesn't necessarily mean that Mr. Pantaleo is guilty either, only that the circumstances suggest a possible pattern of civil rights violations. That is certainly worthy of review — as it was in the Ferguson case. The outcry we hear from the African-American community is a call for justice, not for blanket prosecutions of every officer whose actions result in the death of a criminal suspect.

If the issue of police brutality and the treatment of African-Americans in particular hadn't already captured the public's interest after Ferguson, it's safe to say it has our full attention now. That makes this an ideal opportunity for systemic reform. Police body cameras should still be part of that effort, but the Garner decision has demonstrated that video is no cure-all. Changes in police procedure and training and the process by which such incidents are investigated and potentially prosecuted ought to be part of that movement as well. Communities with elected officials who recognize the nature of this challenge — and the seriousness of these incidents — have a distinct advantage in achieving an end to the abuses.

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