New York Times
August 6, 2014


Handling of New York Chokehold Cases ‘Disappointing,’ Review Board Chief Says

By J. DAVID GOODMAN and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN

The new head of New York City’s police oversight board faulted the Police Department on Tuesday for its handling of officers found to have used chokeholds — a banned tactic that the medical examiner said led to the July 17 death of a Staten Island man in police custody.

Speaking at a special session of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the chairman, Richard D. Emery, said the department’s response to bona fide chokehold complaints had been “disappointing,” and that if that does not change under Commissioner William J. Bratton, it “would be a significant issue.”

The comments by Mr. Emery came toward the end of the nearly two-hour board meeting, which swung from bureaucratic discussion of board policies to impassioned pleas from New Yorkers for stronger oversight of the Police Department. The meeting was one of two gatherings held on Tuesday in Lower Manhattan to address, directly and indirectly, the debate over police practices that has erupted in the city since the death of the Staten Island man, Eric Garner. He died after he was subdued by police officers, including one who put an arm around Mr. Garner’s neck during the struggle.

Last week, the medical examiner concluded that Mr. Garner’s death was caused by a chokehold and chest compression.

The president of the union representing police officers, Patrick J. Lynch, has defended the actions of the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, and on Tuesday afternoon, hours before the review board meeting, Mr. Lynch delivered another strong defense asserting the officer’s actions did not amount to a chokehold.

The arrest and death of Mr. Garner, a 350-pound man whom the police accused of selling untaxed cigarettes, was captured in a video taken by a bystander’s cellphone. In the days after, Mr. Bratton said the video appeared to show a chokehold and promised a sweeping review of the department’s training.

“It was not a chokehold,” Mr. Lynch said, flanked by numerous leaders of the unions representing officers and sergeants, as well as lawyers representing Officer Pantaleo. “It was bringing a person to the ground the way we’re trained to do to place him under arrest. You put your arm on them and bring them down.”

Standing alongside Mr. Lynch, the head of the union representing police sergeants, Edward D. Mullins, called on his members to avoid problems by supervising every arrest, potentially slowing police response across the city. He said the use of the term “chokehold” by the office of the chief medical examiner amounted to politics.

The comments quickly rippled through the upper echelons of the de Blasio administration, which has moved to prevent anger over Mr. Garner’s death from driving a wedge between the department and minority communities that supported the mayor’s election last year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio brushed off suggestions of a work slowdown by officers, or political motivations of the medical examiner. “The rank and file are here to do their job, and they will do their job,” he told reporters.

Mr. de Blasio again defended a “broken windows” approach to policing, strongly associated with Commissioner Bratton, that targets minor offenses in order to prevent larger ones. “That’s what the people of this city want, because it helps keep crime low.”

Mr. Lynch said the union would be able to line up use-of-force experts who would state that Officer Pantaleo’s grip on Mr. Garner did not amount to a chokehold. Officer Pantaleo is “a good police officer,” who Mr. Lynch said has made well over 200 arrests in his eight-year career. “Look, he’s distraught over the fact that there was a loss of life.”

The “broken windows” strategy has come under new scrutiny after Mr. Garner’s death.

During a public comment period at the review board meeting, several people urged the board to look at the policy of “broken windows” policing. “You’ve got to talk back to the mayor,” Michael Meyers, the head of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, said.

Mr. Emery likened those comments to those of the police union. “They were almost as vituperative as you,” he said, but added that he agreed it was a “problem” that the Police Department appeared to brush off recommendations for discipline in cases where complaints were backed up by the board’s investigation.

Ten chokehold complaints since 2009 have resulted in recommendations of serious discipline from the review board. In each completed case, the police commissioner at the time, Raymond W. Kelly, opted for a lesser punishment or no punishment.

“There has been, I would say, a disappointing response in the past with Commissioner Kelly,” Mr. Emery said. “I fully expect that to change in the future when we substantiate cases.”

He said a study going back over 1,128 chokehold complaints to the agency since 2009 would be completed by late August or early September. Another study by the board into complaints from people who record officers on the job and then face “negative” reactions is also underway.

“Ultimately, the final arbiter is the police commissioner,” Stephen Davis, the department’s top spokesman, said of the handling of punishments. “Bratton has good experience in this area. He knows Richard Emery a long time. We intend to work together.”