July 22, 2014

2 Cops on Desk Duty After Death in Which Chokehold Was Used


PATRICK J. LYNCH: ‘A knee-jerk reaction’ by NYPD.  
WILLIAM BRATTON: Officers can’t just back off an arrest.  
MAYOR DE BLASIO: Disturbed by video.  
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: Video of takedown ‘disgusts me.’  

Two Police Officers have been placed on modified duty, with one stripped of his gun and badge, and face possible criminal charges after a video showed that officer apparently deployed a Police Department-banned chokehold to take a man to the ground, precipitating his death, after the man resisted being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island.

After Police Commissioner William J. Bratton characterized Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo as having used the chokehold against Eric Garner—placing the cop’s career in doubt even if he is not criminally charged—Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch criticized a process that he asserted undermined the officer’s rights.

‘Pre-Judges the Case’

“The department’s modification of this police officer under these circumstances is a completely unwarranted, knee-jerk reaction for political reasons and nothing more,” he said in a July 19 statement, two days after the fatal encounter. “It is a decision by the department that effectively pre-judges this case and denies the officer the very benefit of a doubt that has long been part of the social contract that allows police officers to face the risks of this difficult and complex job.”

A series of protests, some led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, were conducted in the days following Mr. Garner’s death. Both the apparent use of the chokehold that was banned by the NYPD more than two decades ago and the incident that triggered it—Mr. Garner allegedly selling “loosies” on the street—brought condemnation of police tactics.

Mayor de Blasio, who postponed a family trip to Italy for a day in an attempt to calm tensions roiling both the neighborhood where the incident occurred and other portions of the city’s minority community, called Mr. Garner’s death a “tragedy.”

He and Mr. Bratton promised a thorough internal investigation of the case, even as Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan is determining whether criminal charges should be brought.

EMT Dereliction?

Four non-city emergency medical workers have been relieved of street duty because of their lackluster response when they arrived at the scene and found Mr. Garner lying on the ground and unresponsive. Some have criticized the other officers who joined Mr. Pantaleo and another plainclothes cop who has been assigned to desk duty, Justice Damico, for not trying to assist Mr. Garner after he cried out several times that he couldn’t breathe.

“We have a responsibility to keep every New Yorker safe, and that includes when individuals are in custody of the NYPD,” Mr. de Blasio said at a July 18 press conference.

A videotape obtained by the Daily News and posted on its website shows two plainclothes officers confronting Mr. Garner on Bay St. near the 120th Precinct. He told them he had been breaking up a fight, not selling cigarettes, an account later supported by at least one witness.

“I didn’t do s---!” Mr. Garner, 43, told the cops as they stood a few feet from him. “I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!”

The plainclothes officers called for uniformed backup, and then moved in on Mr. Garner, who stood 6-foot-5-inches tall and weighed an estimated 350 to 400 pounds.

‘I Can’t Breathe’

He towered over the plainclothesmen, and Officer Pantaleo grabbed his hand in an attempt to handcuff him. When Mr. Garner shook free, Officer Pantaleo put him in what looked like a chokehold and took him to the ground, his arm still wrapped around Mr. Garner’s throat. Several other cops then piled on him.

Witnesses said Mr. Garner called out several times, “I can’t breathe,” something Mr. Bratton confirmed. After Mr. Garner showed symptoms of a heart attack, police called an ambulance. He died an hour later at a hospital.

Mr. Garner had more than 30 arrests for sale of untaxed cigarettes, marijuana and assault.

“The video made quite apparent that they intended to arrest him,” Mr. Bratton said. “He made it quite clear to them that he would not allow that to occur. I do not expect my officers to walk away.”

He said the officers were doing their jobs, but that the department would investigate whether their actions were appropriate.

‘Enforcing’ the Law

“If police officers are asked to enforce the law became they’re responding to community complaints, we expect them to do so,” Mr. de Blasio said. “...The question of how you respond is a different matter.”

Mr. Bratton said the plainclothes officers from the 120th Precinct anti-crime team were assigned to the area because of a high level of arrests, summonses and 911 calls.

In response to a reporter who asked whether the police reaction to selling untaxed cigarettes singly—called “loosies”—was over the top, Mr. Bratton said merchants in the area had complained of losing sales to peddlers of loosies.

Disproportionate Action

Critics of the Police Department said they were dismayed by the video. City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a prime sponsor of bills to limit stop-and-frisks, said, “As an elected official who has fought for better police practices, the video of an unarmed man screaming in a chokehold that he can’t breathe disgusts me.

“Selling illegal cigarettes, which has yet to be confirmed, should not mean a death sentence. Garner joins a list that every male of more color in New York City knows they are a candidate for and every mother of more color dreads.”