Wall Street Journal
August 6, 2014

 

Police Unions Blast Mayor in Chokehold Case

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Calls Medical Examiner's Findings Political

By PERVAIZ SHALLWANI, MARA GAY and SEAN GARDINER

Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
PBA President Patrick Lynch on Tuesday.

City police unions launched an offensive against Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration Tuesday, sharply criticizing the response to a man's death after an apparent police chokehold and calling the medical examiner's findings political.

The public conflict poses a major challenge for the mayor, who has sought to soothe concerns over policing in minority communities while still expressing support for police.

On July 17, an officer applied an apparent chokehold on Eric Garner, 43 years old, who police said resisted arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Mr. Garner said he couldn't breathe and died about an hour later. The incident was video recorded and posted on the Web.

In the nearly three weeks since, the mayor and Police Commissioner William Bratton said the tactic looked like a chokehold, the use of which the NYPD has prohibited since 1993.

The mayor also hosted a round-table discussion prominently featuring civil-rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton at City Hall. And the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner's preliminary report said a cause of Mr. Garner's death was "compression of neck (choke hold)."

The union leaders said at a news conference that Mr. Sharpton's prominence at the discussion and the reference to the chokehold in the medical examiner's report went too far, and that it seemed the mayor didn't support the rank-and-file.

"It was not a chokehold," said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. The union represents Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer accused of applying the hold.

Mr. Lynch called the medical examiner's report "a political document not backed up" by a later, more scientific report. A city official said the findings of the preliminary report have been deemed final.

    
Associated Press  
The union said the prominence of the Rev. Al Sharpton at a discussion of the event hosted by Mayor Bill de Blasio went too far.  

"It was bringing a person to the ground the way we're trained to do," Mr. Lynch said, adding, "we will get use-of-force experts to say that."

Mr. Lynch said the phrase chokehold wasn't a medical term and using it was beyond the scope of the medical examiner.

"I think the mayor needs to support New York City police officers," Mr. Lynch said, adding, that officers don't feel they are getting the support that they need."

Mr. de Blasio pushed back at an unrelated news conference, calling the medical examiner's office "the gold standard in this country."

"Union leaders will say what union leaders say—that is historic, that's been going on for decades," Mr. de Blasio said. "We're going to do our job. I don't let the rhetoric of union leaders stand in the way of getting the job done."

Marti Adams, a spokeswoman for Mr. de Blasio, said there is "no question that the men and women of the NYPD have the mayor's full support."

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner stands by its findings, a spokeswoman said.

The office has used nonmedical terms in past preliminary reports, such as "multiple dog bites."

Asked about use of "choke hold," Michael Baden, a former city chief medical examiner, said there is nothing in forensic pathology death certification guidelines that requires putting in "chokehold" or not putting it in. "There's no rule for it."

Instead, Dr. Baden said, "it's sort of up to the individual office or style that the individual doctor uses." He said when he was medical examiner he used similar terms in his reports.

He said the job of the medical examiner is to try to shed as much light and "be transparent about what happened."

The police unions opened another front, concerning last week's round-table talk.

Messrs. de Blasio and Bratton took office vowing to give community leaders more say in policing policies.

At the meeting, Mr. Sharpton, sitting next to the mayor, called for an overhaul of the NYPD and said he wants federal investigators to take the case involving Mr. Garner. It is currently being investigated by Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan.

Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said the round-table discussion didn't include anyone who defended police officers. "Al Sharpton is not a credible individual," Mr. Mullins said, adding, "he's allowed to sit in City Hall and threaten the mayor."

Mr. Sharpton called the comments "immature and childish." He added: "All people are trying to do is call for a fair and full investigation, and they are getting into name calling."

Some political analysts said the mayor needs to appear strong and stay his course.

"This may be the first test of de Blasio on the question of who's in charge here," said Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. "If the mayor lets it be known that he can be pushed around by anybody, whether it be the police or Rev. Sharpton, then he's going to be pushed around."

Messrs. Mullins and Lynch also advised members that there should be more supervision on all arrests, even if it leads to delays in responding to calls.

"We want you to follow the rule book, the way it's written. And if there's a delay in getting to the next place, so be it," Mr. Mullins said.

Following the union news conference, Mr. Mullins said he wasn't calling for a work slowdown, but noted that sergeants often multitask on assignments. For now on, they should work on one assignment at a time, he said.

Mr. Bratton, at an unrelated event, said union leaders were entitled to their opinions and said he expects "that our officers always work by the book."

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer, said he didn't think there was any cause for concern. He said that while police union officials represent the feeling of rank and file, personal opinions "will not get in the way of carrying out the duty that they have."

Write to Pervaiz Shallwani at pervaiz.shallwani@wsj.com, Mara Gay atmara.gay@wsj.com and Sean Gardiner at sean.gardiner@wsj.com