Staten Island Advance
November 14, 2014


Bill making chokeholds illegal introduced in City Council

By Anna Sanders | asanders@siadvance.com

CITY HALL -- A bill criminalizing the use of chokeholds was introduced in City Council on Thursday in response to the death of Eric Garner in police custody. 

The legislation, from Councilman Rory Lancman, would make performing a chokehold a misdemeanor offense. The maneuver would be illegal for everyone in New York City, but the proposed law is geared toward police. 

"I found the video of Eric Garner being killed to be deeply troubling, even haunting," said Lancman, a Queens Democrat. "My job as a legislator is to find legislative solutions where they exist to tragedies like Mr. Garner's death." 

Garner, a 43-year-old father of six from Port Richmond, died last July after being put in a chokehold during an arrest in Tompkinsville. In a video of the arrest -- for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes -- Garner can be heard repeatedly telling police officers, "I can't breathe." His death was ruled a homicide. 

A special grand jury began hearing evidence in September to determine if there will be criminal charges against police officers involved in the arrest. 

The use of chokeholds have been banned under New York City Police Department guidelines for 21 years. State law does not explicitly prohibit chokeholds per se, but it's illegal to obstruct someone's breathing or blood circulation. (A law in the state legislature would outright ban chokeholds.) 

Lancman said NYPD policy isn't having an effect on police officers. The councilman said he believed officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put Garner in the chokehold, might not have done so if the maneuver was outright illegal. 

"Police officers, like everyone else, understand that internal policy guidelines are one thing, but actual crimes are something else," Lancman said. "All of us are more deterred from engaging in conduct that has criminal consequences."

'EXCEPTIONAL SITUATIONS'

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation. 

When asked about the use of chokeholds during a Council hearing in September, Police Commissioner William Bratton said they were not "illegal" but against department policy. He said he would not support an outright ban. 

"I feel that department policies are sufficient," Bratton said. "That if lawmakers want to try to make that against the law, well, good luck, but I won't support it." 

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday said he didn't think chokeholds should be legally prohibited. He said that the best way to handle use of chokeholds by police was through NYPD policy, like retraining the department on what maneuvers are appropriate to use.

"There are some exceptional situations," de Blasio added. "I want to respect our men and women in uniform who may be put into a life and death situation -- literally one-on-one, them and a perpetrator who could literally mean to kill them and they have to defend themselves -- and that might involve a chokehold." 

Lancman said that anyone accused of any crime -- including a chokehold as a misdemeanor -- would be able to use justification as a defense. 

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said at City Hall on Thursday that he hasn't seen the legislation yet. 

'A CHILLING EFFECT'

Without support from the mayor, the measure faces an uphill battle in the City Council. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said she will be reviewing the legislation. 

Representing the district where Garner died, Councilwoman Debi Rose (D-North Shore) supported the concept of making chokeholds illegal when Lancman first floated the idea over the summer. Her office said she still needs to review the details of the legislation.

Councilman Steven Matteo, who has not read the details of the proposal, said this type of legislation was unwarranted. He argued that laws against assault already exist and that the NYPD has strong protocols in place regarding the use of force. 

There is also a system to investigate the potentially criminal use of force by a police officers, he said, including the newly-created position of Inspector General, NYPD Internal Affairs and the Civilian Complaint Review Board. 

"We shouldn't be implementing measures that could have a further chilling effect on policing in this city," Matteo (R-Mid-Island) added. 

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, pointed out that there are existing state laws that govern use of force of "any kind" from police.

"The Council's meddling and uninformed proposals will prevent police officers from taking the actions that they reasonably believe they should to secure the situation in encounters with potentially armed and dangerous suspects," Lynch said in a statement. 

JUSTIFYING USE OF FORCE

Lancman introduced two other bills related to use of force by police. One measure would require the NYPD to draft regular reports on use of force, allowing for a more complete picture of such incidents. 

Another measure would require officers being criminally prosecuted for inappropriate use of force to show that the level of force used was justified to subdue a suspect.  

"In the case of Eric Garner, for instance, he was offering very little resistance," Lancman said. "There could never be an argument that the amount of force that was used -- in that case a deadly chokehold -- was necessary."