Wall Street Journal
October 8, 2014

Chokehold Complaints Rise

NYPD Oversight Board Says Discipline Is a ‘Virtually Total Failure’


Complaints about the New York Police Department’s use of chokeholds have increased in the past several years as efforts to discipline officers using the banned tactic have been a “virtually total failure,” an NYPD oversight board said in an analysis released Tuesday.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board’s 139-page analysis was commissioned after Eric Garner died, in part, because an officer subdued him with a chokehold during an arrest in July, according to the city medical examiner.

Between July 2013 and June 2014, the board received 219 chokehold complaints, a level of activity that hasn’t been seen since the period between 2006 and 2010, when it received more than 200 such complaints each year, according to the analysis.

Meanwhile, in the past decade, the review board and the NYPD “failed to charge officers with chokehold violations” because they informally redefined the definition of a chokehold, the report found.

NYPD rules define a chokehold as “any pressure to the throat” that “may prevent breathing.” But in past years, the department took disciplinary actions only against officers who actually interfered with someone’s breathing, the analysis found.

“The NYPD disciplinary process for officers in physical force incidents tended to degrade the protection afforded to citizens,” the analysis found.

The report is the most comprehensive study done on chokehold use by New York City police since the department forbade the maneuver in 1993. It examined 1,128 chokehold complaints between January 2009 and June 2014.

The review board’s report is also critical of its own investigations into chokehold complaints. The report found 156 incidents that the board never classified as chokehold cases because different investigators used different interpretations of the tactic.

After the review board concludes any investigation into an officer, it makes disciplinary recommendations to the NYPD. The department then makes a final determination in the case, which could range from no punishment to firing. The review board’s main recommendation is that the NYPD monitor its internal trial judges “so that they follow the explicit intent of the chokehold regulation.”

The report further recommends that some officers accused of a chokehold may deserve a lesser penalty “rather than exonerating misconduct.”

“If there is one lesson to be learned from this study, one lesson that may even save lives, it is the need for a coordinated plan of action between” the review board and NYPD, said board Chairman Richard Emery.

Sgt. Edward Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association union, said the report was “interesting but it’s not accurate” because it didn’t take into account if an officer was injured during encounters where a chokehold was allegedly used.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents uniformed NYPD officers, said that “any report based on unsworn, unsubstantiated and poorly investigated complaints that were filed by criminals is totally meaningless.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “This report recognizes the concrete steps the police commissioner has already taken—from ordering an extensive new retraining program to a review of all provisions of the current Patrol Guide related to use of force—to set a higher standard for how our police officers interact with our communities.”

The study found that officers have “continued to perform chokeholds” and based on a review of public complaints their use “appears to be increasing.”

In 2001, the review board received about four chokehold complaints for every 100 excessive-force complaints, according to the report. From July 2013 through June 2014, the review board received 7.6 chokehold complaints for every 100 excessive-force complaints.

“The persistence of this practice puts civilians at risk of physical injury,” the report said.

The report also found that half of the 554 officers identified in chokehold complaints had six or more other complaints filed against them with the board.

Officers identified in chokehold complaints had an average of nearly seven misconduct complaints each, the report found. Officers who had other complaints filed against them—but weren’t accused of using a chokehold—had an average of about four-excessive force complaints each.

The report found that Brooklyn’s 73rd and 75th precincts, which largely handle the Brownsville and East New York neighborhoods, had the highest number of chokehold complaints between 2009 and 2013.

The review board confirmed chokehold allegations in 10 cases between 2003 and 2008. Nine of those cases went to NYPD trial, of which eight were either dismissed or concluded with a not guilty finding.

Between 2009 and 2014, 10 cases were confirmed by the review board, which recommended charges. The NYPD pursued one case and imposed disciplinary measure on the officers involved. Three of the cases are pending a final outcome, the report said.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the report was anticipated to be critical of police because the review board is staffed with civilians.

“People think they understand how police work should be done, but there’s a tremendous discrepancy between how police work is done and how people think it should be done,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Garner’s family filed a notice of claim Monday, saying they intend to sue the city and the NYPD for $75 million in damages.

At least two officers have been placed on administrative duty while an investigation continues. The Staten Island district attorney has empaneled a grand jury to determine if the officers’ actions were criminal. The NYPD’s internal affairs bureau will determine if any officers violated department policy.

Michael Hardy, General Counsel to the Rev. Al Sharpton ’s National Action Network, which has supported Mr. Garner’s family, said the findings in the review board’s report were valuable because they reinforced the illegality of using chokeholds to make arrests.

“There has to be something in place that looks at the repeated misconduct of those officers,” Mr. Hardy said.

Write to Pervaiz Shallwani at pervaiz.shallwani@wsj.com