A New York City grand jury declined to indict officers on criminal charges for the chokehold death of Eric Garner while the city settled the case for millions before the family ever filed a lawsuit. Garner’s case settled for $5.9 million on Monday. Wrongful death cases take into consideration money to award a family for their loss and criminal cases seek justice and fairness.
Some argue that the amount of Garner’s monetary settlement was too high while others say it was not enough money. Wrongful death settlements consider the economic loss to family heirs and the pain and suffering to the deceased before death. The family demanded $75 million in their statutory letter to New York of their intent to file a lawsuit before the 1 year statute of limitations—on Friday. The family may still seek damages against the first responders for allegedly inept first responder assistance. No amount of money equates justice for Eric Garner and his family.
Garner died in Staten Island on July 17, 2014 at the hands of officers who arrested him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes while holding him in a chokehold seen on video. His case prompted the “I can’t breathe” movement sparking demonstrations in New York and across the country on excessive police force and killings of unarmed black men.
Garner’s settlement without criminal ramifications against the officers is not uncommon. The 2013 police shooting case of Jonathan Ferrell settled for $2.25 million in May, 2015. A Charlotte, NC police officer shot Ferrell 10 times killing him as he allegedly sought police help following an automobile accident. Officer Randall Kerrick goes on trial for voluntary manslaughter on July 20, 2015. A Cleveland police shooting case settled for $1.5 million for each victim in 2014 for the wrongful deaths of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell. The recent trial of officer Michael Brelo for their deaths ended with a not guilty verdict in 2015. Brelo was the only officer who went to trial while over 60 officers chased the victims in police cars with 137 shots fired at the unarmed victims.
In Baltimore, since 2011, 102 victims of excessive force, mostly non-fatal by police received almost $6 million in settlements or lawsuit judgments, according to the Baltimore Sun. However the payouts for these police settlements require confidentiality—the victims’ families are silenced to receive a settlement. In many cities, a confidentiality clause in settlements paid with public funds is not legal.
Civil settlements for wrongful death cases make no admission of guilt or acceptance of liability. These settlements always contain a clause that the municipality does not accept liability for an officer’s acts. And a criminal trial against an officer—assuming there is one, cannot use the settlement agreement. Payment of money does not mean guilt. In most police involved on duty killings, there is rarely a trial. And the monetary settlement is often all that a family receives for the death of their loved one.
In order for police excessive force to change, the system must change. It is rare for police to be charged with on duty killings. According to the Washington Post, of the 1000’s of fatal police shootings occurring every year, prosecutors only charge 4 or 5. More prosecutor offices must evaluate police cases fairly and bring charges, where appropriate. This means treating the cases before the grand jury as any other case without deference to the police officer or regard for the prosecutor’s political reputation. It’s up to a jury or judge to determine guilt at a trial. Where there is potential or previously shown bias, a separate legal office other than the local prosecutor should review police cases. Every prosecutor’s office should not be relieved of police involved excessive force cases, as some proponents suggest. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, an exception to the norm, charged six officers in the case of Freddie Gray who sustained fatal injuries in a police van on April 12.
The saying that money can’t buy love applies similarly with fatal police cases. Money can’t buy justice. Justice happens when prosecutors file charges against police for unjustified on duty police killings. And a jury convicts police for those killings. A system that only pays out money due to police killings but fails to charge and convict officers is a broken one. It must be fixed.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor.