Try holding your breath for 27 seconds. It's not easy. Now try doing it under duress. Or better yet, have someone hold you in a tight headlock for 17 of those 27 seconds. Then, without pause, have that person roll you onto your stomach and pin you for the remaining 10. Tell them to put their knee into your back. Make sure that they lean their body weight down on you and pin your face to the ground. If you do this, you might have a small window into what Eric Garner must have felt when he got choked to death by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
As a sociologist, I collect and analyze videos to understand human behavior in different situations. I’ve used videos to understand how rappers keep tense battles from becoming violent and have also used videos to trace how people escape embarrassing situations.
I watched Eric Garner’s arrest video last night and was deeply troubled by what I saw.
Officer Pantaleo applied 27 seconds of choking pressure to Eric Garner’s neck and chest. 17 of these seconds were applied to Garner’s neck; 10 seconds were placed on Garner’s back. This compressed Garner’s neck and diaphragm, making it hard for him to breathe. These observations are consistent with the medical examiner’s report, which ruled Garner’s death a homicide from neck and chest compression.
Now, watch the following video of his arrest. I made some notes with time tags that show: a) Garner was not resisting arrest; and b) Officer Pantaleo was using excessive force holding onto a choke when Garner was suffocating to death.
Before he is swarmed, Garner tells the officers, “I’m minding my business. Why don’t you leave me alone?” As officers approach Garner, he puts his hands up and says, “Don’t touch me, please.”
(00:38) : Two officers close the distance on Garner. Officer Pantaleo jumps onto Garner’s back and wraps his left around Garner’s neck. He slips his right arm underneath Garner’s right armpit—into a wrestling move known as a “half nelson.” Pantaleo’s arm is pressed down on Garner’s neck and esophagus, which can disrupt breathing. Garner is not resisting. He does not make any swinging motions with his free hand, nor does he try to pry Pantaleo’s choking arm off his throat.
(00:41) : Surrounding officers swarm Garner. Multiple officers struggle to bring Garner down. Pantaleo is still applying the choke from behind Garner.
(00:43) : Garner falls to his hands and knees. Officer Pantaleo falls down with him and is riding his back, still holding onto the choke.
(00:47) : Four officers wrestle Garner to the ground. He falls to his right side with his left arm pinned behind his back. Garner places his right arm with his palm open into the air, like a sign of submission or compliance. Garner is still not resisting. Meanwhile, Office Pantaleo is still on his back, applying choking pressure across Garner’s neck. This marks 9 seconds of choking pressure.
(00:49) : Officers say, “He’s down.” Pantaleo continues holding his choke. He’s been applying choking pressure to Garner’s neck for 11 seconds now.
(00:51) : Officers say “Give us your hands, buddy.” Garner makes a gurgling noise. The choke is tightening, or Garner is running out of oxygen. Officer Pantaelo continues to hold onto the choke, making it impossible for his fellow officers to get Garner’s free arm behind his back for cuffing. This marks 13 seconds of choking pressure.
(00:53-:54) : Garner cries, “I can’t breathe.” Police roll Garner over, face down onto his stomach. Officer Pantaleo is still holding onto the choke. The gurgling sound is a sign that a choke has tightened, or that Garner is having significant difficulties breathing.
(00:55) : Officer Pantaleo releases the choke and places his knee into Garner’s back and supports his entire body weight on Garner’s head, which is pinned to the concrete awkwardly. Here, an out of breath and terrified Garner cries out repeatedly, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” His voice is muffled. The downward pressure on his chest and head further restrict his breathing.
(00:58) : Officer Pantaleo keeps downward knee pressure into Garner’s back. He also maintains downward pressure on Garner’s face. Garner repeats, “I can’t breathe.”
(01:05) : Another officer steers Officer Pantaleo off Garner, who continues to tell officers , “I can’t breathe.”
These 27 seconds are disturbing, but they show us important lessons about policing:
( 1) Consistent pressure—to the neck or torso—can be lethal.
Some from the Brazilian jiu jitsu and grappling communities have argued that Pantaleo wasn’t correctly applying what is known as the “rear naked choke,” or “Mata Leo” (Portuguese for “Lion Killer”) in the video. They are right. Officer Pantaleo appeared to have a standard headlock, which didn’t hit the carotid arteries. If he had, Garner would have fallen unconscious much faster. It only takes a few seconds to put someone to sleep when you’re using the right technique.
But, as a submission grappler, I also know that consistent pressure on the neck and chest can disrupt breathing and induce panic. Beginners in Brazilian jiu jitsu often report feeling claustrophobic when someone is laying on them, trying to put them to sleep. Through practice, beginners learn to relax their breathing while under duress. This is a steep learning curve, though, and not one that police should anticipate seeing in civilians.
( 2) Police need to be trained more to recognize warning signs in the detained.
There were multiple moments where Pantaleo should have released his chokehold, or the choking pressure to Garner’s back and head.
By :49 seconds in the video, Garner is pinned by multiple officers and is not making any visible signs of ‘resisting’ arrest. Other officers say “He’s done” and “give us your hands, buddy.” Pantaleo’s commitment to the chokehold here interferes with the cuffing of Garner.
At :51 seconds, Garner gurgles. This was the first sign that the choke had tightened or that he was suffocating.
At :53 seconds, Garner pleas in a muffled and strained voice, “I can’t breathe.” The muffled sound suggests that the choke has tightened and that he is suffocating.
At :55 seconds, police roll Garner onto his stomach, flattening him onto the concrete. Here, Pantaleo lets go of his choke, but replaces the choke with downward knee pressure onto Garner’s back. This constricts his diaphragm, making it difficult for him to catch his breath. Similarly, he pins Garner’s face to the concrete, turning his esophagus, making it difficult for him to breathe.
These were all opportune moments to let go. Ultimately, we’ll never know if these tactics could have saved Garner’s life. But, isn’t it worth revisiting how and where this arrest went wrong if it saves lives?
We are at a crossroads right now. But, this isn’t a moment to roundly condemn cops. Those of us who haven’t worked in law enforcement will never understand what it’s like to work a beat or make arrests. Police risk their lives every day. They are often unsung heroes whose good deeds go unnoticed and whose mistakes become amplified in the public eye. When was the last time we saw police attending hearings and funerals with grieving families? I saw this all the time in my fieldwork in Philadelphia. But good deeds and intentions do not exempt the police from critique.
In the wake of Garner’s death, let’s revisit policing critically. Maybe Eric Garner’s death will force us to revisit the training methods of police officers. Maybe it will force us to look carefully at the mental health needs of police, who face constant trauma and are quickly thrust back out into the line of duty. But more than anything, I hope that Garner’s death will lead to a larger conversation about how we can prevent similar tragedies from happening again. This conversation is long overdue and it requires the collective efforts of law enforcement, community members, policymakers, researchers, and others interested in making our streets safer for everyone.