Staten Island

Protestors shout at Times Square after it was announced that the New York City police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner is not being indicted, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, in New York. A grand jury cleared the white New York City police officer Wednesday in the videotaped chokehold death of Garner, an unarmed black man, who had been stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, a lawyer for the victim's family said. A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the Internet showed the 43-year-old Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. The city medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

It used to be that this nation would get riled up over high-profile trials. The acquittal of individuals thought to be guilty in the court of public opinion stirred strong feelings. In the United States, the bar for conviction – that is, beyond a reasonable doubt – is rather high, making convictions, especially for some high-profile cases, difficult to attain. For all the griping and the moaning, most minds agreed that the legal system had run its course and worked.

Sadly, the same cannot be said today following two enormous miscarriages of justice in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. In Ferguson, as this paper has discussed considerably in the past, former Officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed, by shooting him six times on Aug. 9. The witnesses’ accounts vary as to what exactly transpired ahead of the shooting, with some claiming there was a struggle between Brown and Wilson and others suggesting Brown was attempting to surrender. In Staten Island on July 17, Officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Eric Garner, another unarmed man, in a chokehold (banned by the New York Police Department’s policy), while attempting to take Garner into custody for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. This chokehold, paired with other officers pinning Garner to the ground and causing his chest to compress, led to Garner’s death, which is all on video. In both cases, the grand jury declined to indict the police officers for any crime, be it manslaughter or murder.

Unlike a conviction, indictments require relatively low burdens of proof. All an indictment means, in practice, is that the charge is not a frivolous one. And like so many other pernicious instances of our legal system failing, this dereliction of due process appears tied to race. The two police officers in question were white, and the two victims were black. Additionally, grand juries, which unlike petit juries are only comprised of willing applicants, are typically overwhelmingly old and white.

These decisions – or, we should say, indecisions – have set off discussions, debates and protests on campus and throughout the country about race relations and the role of law enforcement in the United States.

Mechanically speaking, there are some policy fixes that would help prevent tragedies such as these, as well as ensure justice is carried out when police brutality transpires. Democrats and Republicans, such as President Barack Obama and Dallas County District Attorney-elect Susan Hawk, have already announced their intention to appropriate money for ubiquitous body cameras for police officers, which would record interactions with the general public.

Studies have shown that the presence of these cameras reduce incidents where physical force is used, protecting both the officers and the community at the same time. However, sometimes – as in Garner’s case – a recording is just not enough. In those cases, we believe that structural changes are needed to the grand jury system in this country.

Here in Texas, the venal “key-man” system for picking grand juries, in which a judge picks one specific person to impanel the jury as opposed to selecting random names, needs to be abolished. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has already introduced legislation to this effect, and we hope it gets its day in next year’s legislative session.

But the grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island were not impaneled with the “key-man” system. Accordingly, we also believe that grand jurors should, like petit jurors, be summoned from the general populace instead of being volunteer-based. The terms for these grand juries would likely have to be shorter, but fairness in the system would increase remarkably.

There aren’t any silver bullets to solve racial animosity in this country. Fifty years on from the Civil Rights Act, we haven’t quite appeared as a country to move on from nasty prejudice.

John Papanier, 12, directs traffic on a street congested by vehicles during cleanup after Superstorm Sandy, in the New Dorp section of Staten Island, N.Y. Residents of New York’s Staten Island borough are noticing something new as they and volunteers work to clear the remains of storm-damaged homes: gawkers. Cruising by in cars or walking through streets snapping photos, these are people drawn to the scene of a tragedy to glimpse what they've seen on television come to life.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Garbage trucks, hulking military vehicles and mud-caked cars move slowly through a Staten Island waterfront neighborhood still reeling from Superstorm Sandy’s storm surge. Then comes an outlier: a spotless SUV with three passengers peering out windows at a mangled home choked with sea grass.

Residents recognize the occupants right away. They’re disaster tourists, people drawn to the scene of a tragedy to glimpse the pictures they’ve seen on television come to life.

Two weeks after the superstorm socked the region, cleanup continues in New York and New Jersey, which bore the brunt of the destruction. At its peak, the storm knocked out power to 8.5 million in 10 states, and some during a later nor’easter. About 73,000 utility customers in New York and New Jersey remained without power late Sunday, most of them on Long Island.

But the storm didn’t just bring darkness and despair; it also brought the gawkers.

Seaver Avenue on Staten Island was sloppy with mud, sand and curbside mounds of couches, personal photos, mattresses and sodden sheetrock. Mickey Merrell’s front porch was askew, and the storm surge nearly knocked a neighbor’s house into hers. Across the street a house was washed off its foundation. It was a scene of human misery — and one of New York City’s new attractions, like the construction crane that collapsed and dangled high above mid-town Manhattan on Oct. 29.

“Sometimes it’s like we’re at the zoo,” Merrell said. “So many people come and stop and stare at this place.”

Domenick and Kim Barone said they could tell the tourists apart from the volunteers because the gawkers’ clothes and shoes are clean, and they’re often snapping pictures.

Peter Lisi, a renter who is fighting a landlord trying to evict him from his damaged home, said he doesn’t mind the gawkers, “as long as they’re not making fun.” Some of them are drawn in to what’s happening and help, he said.