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Religion Today Blog Christian Blog and Commentary

New Yorkers Wrestle with Police Relations after Eric Garner Ruling

  • Emily Belz
    Religious persecution, missions, Christianity around the world
  • 2014 Dec 15
  • Comments

David Beidel has been a pastor in Staten Island for more than 20 years. His church, New Hope Community, is across the street from the West Brighton Housing Projects, and many of his congregants are low-income minorities. Beidel is also the president of the Staten Island Association of Evangelicals, a surprisingly diverse group of 20 evangelical churches on the majority-white Staten Island.


SIAE’s 20 churches have black, white, Chinese, and Hispanic pastors, congregations with white police officers and impoverished minorities. The pastors meet regularly to pray, and worked together closely when Hurricane Sandy devastated many of their neighborhoods in 2012. 

Several of the pastors from the association went with Beidel to pray at the spot where African-American Eric Garner died on Staten Island, the night the grand jury handed down its decision not to indict the police officer involved in his death. The churches held a prayer meeting the Sunday after.


Beidel describes Staten Island as having a “Mason-Dixon line,” where racial minorities largely live north of Interstate 278 and whites live south.  The Garner incident happened north of the “Mason-Dixon line,” back in July. NYPD officers arrested Garner for selling loose cigarettes on the street, while he protested and told them not to touch him.


One of the officers put him in a choke hold in the course of the arrest, a practice banned in the NYPD. Garner gasped, said, “I can’t breathe,” over and over, and then went unconscious. When EMTs arrived shortly after, they did not give him oxygen or try to resuscitate him.


The encounter was captured on video, but the Staten Island grand jury did not indict the officer. Now the NYPD is conducting its own investigation, and the Department of Justice has opened an investigation on potential civil rights violations.


Protests broke out in New York and in other cities after the grand jury’s decision. The evangelical churches in New York were largely unified in calling for peaceful protest, prayer, and more attention to the voices of ethnic minorities. Trip Lee, an African-American rapper and a Christian, composed a song and released it after the grand jury’s ruling. “I wanna say to all my young black men / I know it’s feeling like we just can’t win / But in your anger don’t sin … Where’s your hope at? Mine is in Him.” 


Beidel said he was proud of New Yorkers’ response to the ruling—both the “restraint” of the police officers handling the protests and the peacefulness of the protesters. While protesters were periodically arrested for blocking roadways, New York had none of the looting and burning of the Ferguson, Mo., protests.


Garner’s death occurred in the context of a changing NYPD. Mayor Bill de Blasio largely won election last year on a platform of ending Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy. This year, the crime rate has dropped even as the number of police stops has dropped by 79 percent. The number of misconduct complaints against the police has also had a significant drop from last year. 


Still, the racial breakdown of those stopped is about the same. Police commissioner Bill Bratton is a proponent of the “broken windows” theory of policing, where his officers go after low-level violations like turnstile jumping in the subway—and selling loose cigarettes. Beidel said police officers in neighborhoods like his have a difficult job, but the law-abiding residents pay a price for the seesawing law enforcement approaches. 


“On one end of the spectrum, a heavy-handed policy can result in many innocent young men being harassed or rounded up in wide, blind arrest sweeps,” he said. “On the other end, residents live in terror of the local gangs because police officers try to avoid any confrontation in the [New York Housing Authority] complexes that may lead to accusations of brutality. There is a desperate need for a new generation of police officers who know the youth and families in our struggling communities by face and name.”


New Hope Community Church, for its part, had already been planning to start a basketball league in its parking lot next summer with neighborhood youth and police officers.



Courtesy: WORLD News Service


Photo: Protests erupted in New York City in response to a grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner.


Photo courtesy:


Publication date: December 15, 2014