New York Times
July 20, 2014

Complaints About Chokeholds Are Focus of Study


The city agency that investigates allegations of police misconduct is studying the more than 1,000 complaints it has received in recent years about police officers using chokeholds, the agency said on Saturday, two days after a man died following a police encounter in which the hold appeared to be used.

The study by the Civilian Complaint Review Board follows an announcement on Friday by Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, who said a plainclothes officer on Staten Island appeared to have used a chokehold on Thursday in trying to arrest the man, Eric Garner.

The department’s patrol guide prohibits chokeholds, which it defines as including “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.”

The encounter was filmed by a bystander and viewed widely on the Internet. The recording shows Mr. Garner, who had health problems including severe asthma, arguing with officers who had accused him of illegally selling cigarettes on a sidewalk on Staten Island.

Mr. Garner, 43, a father of six, was a former employee of the city parks department; his mother, Gwen Carr, is a train operator with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; and a sister, Ellisha Flagg, is an M.T.A. bus driver.

In trying to subdue Mr. Garner, the recording shows, an officer threw an arm around his neck as the officer struggled to pull the much-bigger Mr. Garner to the ground. Later, the officer continued to hold Mr. Garner around the neck for several seconds as he tried to crawl forward and other officers sought to put handcuffs on him. Mr. Garner could be heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” over and over again.

Officials identified the officer on Saturday as Daniel Pantaleo, an eight-year veteran who was assigned to a plainclothes team of officers in the 120th Precinct, which covers the northern tip of Staten Island.

Officer Pantaleo was taken off the streets following the episode and given desk duty, but the Police Department formally asked for his gun and shield on Saturday, officially placing him on modified duty.

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which is representing Officer Pantaleo, criticized the department for the restrictions, saying that the move “under these circumstances is a completely unwarranted, knee-jerk reaction for political reasons and nothing more.”

In announcing the study, Richard Emery, the chairman of the complaint review board, said the agency was “in the unique position of being able to look at the chokehold complaints it has received to attempt to discern why officers continue to use this forbidden practice.”

The board said that it had received complaints about 1,022 instances, since 2009, in which the police were accused of using chokeholds, but that in only nine instances had the board discovered enough evidence to determine that a chokehold had been used. In hundreds of other cases, not enough evidence was available to make a determination, the board said, or the investigations stalled when the person making the complaint could not be found or refused to cooperate.

Officer Pantaleo has been sued for civil rights violations twice in federal court since 2013. A plaintiff in one case, Tommy Rice, 41, said several officers — his legal papers identify one as Officer Pantaleo — pulled him and several friends over for a broken taillight before strip-searching them on the side of the road. Mr. Rice said they were arrested on charges, later dismissed, of using a vehicle to purchase narcotics.

On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Garner’s relatives appeared at a packed rally at a Staten Island church.

“He didn’t die because he stopped breathing on his own, somebody took his breath away,” Ms. Flagg, his sister, said.

She was particularly troubled that the encounter began over accusations that Mr. Garner was illegally selling cigarettes. (In New York City, there is a thriving black market for cigarettes from states with lower tax rates).

“A cigarette, are you serious?” she said. The people in the church, along with around 100 more who gathered outside, marched a mile to the spot where Mr. Garner died. The crowd shouted, “No justice, no peace!”

Mr. Garner’s funeral will be held on Wednesday in Brooklyn.

Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.