Getting Away with Murder: How Cops Avoid Accountability for Criminal Acts
On October 7, the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board published a report that analyzes the use of chokeholds by NYPD officers over the past year. The report found that between July 2013 and June 2014, the CCRB received 219 chokehold complaints, the highest number seen since the period between 2006-2010 when over 200 chokehold complaints were being filed annually. This year, CCRB also received the highest relative level of chokehold complaints registered since 2001—7.6 out of every 100 use-of-force complaints were for chokeholds.
According to the NYPD Patrol Guide, the use of chokeholds against civilian suspects is illegal. This has been the case for more than 20 years.
A chokehold, as defined in the NYPD’s use-of-force policy, is “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” However, as the report points out, due to the NYPD and CCRB refusal to enforce the chokehold rule, the mandate was watered down. Instead of prohibiting officers from applying any pressure to the neck that “may” interfere with breathing, civilians hoping to register complaints must now be able to prove that the chokeholds they endured resulted in actual, sustained interference with breathing.
The report was commissioned this past July, following the death of 43-year-old Staten Island resident Eric Garner, whom NYPD officers placed in a chokehold while trying to book him for selling untaxed cigarettes. During the encounter, which was videotaped and went viral soon after, Garner shouted, “I can’t breathe” eleven times as officers continued to swarm around him. A medical examiner later confirmed that Garner’s death was a homicide—a direct result of being put in a chokehold.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s pandering reaction to Garner’s death was to announce that he’d be retraining the entire NYPD in acceptable use-of-force practices when engaging with a suspect. However, though shrugging off civilian complaints and letting officers off the hook is routine and systematic in New York City, the practice of administering chokeholds is limited to a group of abusive cops who perpetually dodge disciplinary action. The CCRB report found that half of the officers who had chokehold complaints filed against them have a history of six or more misconduct complaints; a quarter of them have more than 10. All told, the 554 officers involved in chokehold complaints have had an average of seven misconduct complaints filed against them.
The report is sobering and thorough in its findings, but its conclusions miss the mark. The report praises Bratton for his efforts to retrain NYPD officers and conduct a review of the NYPD’s use of force policies. Its main additional recommendation is “the creation of an inter-agency collaboration between the NYPD and the CCRB in order to strengthen data collection and analysis.” In other words, the institution that supposedly represents the interests of civilians wants to work even more closely with the disproportionately powerful law enforcers who sometimes target them.
According to the report, “reform” must take the shape of increased surveillance, better technology, “risk management,” and data gathering. These are the very tactics favored by the NYPD and Bratton, who is enthusiastic about adding drones to the NYPD’s policing capabilities, and has long advocated for security cameras in subway cars (coming soon). The report makes its intentions clear enough, calling the strengthened partnership between the NYPD and the CCRB “a ‘Vision Zero’ action plan for chokeholds,” in reference to Mayor de Blasio’s plan to eliminate traffic-related deaths.
The report places the overwhelming majority of blame for lax chokehold regulation on the courts. Since chokeholds were banned in NYC in 1993, the CCRB has only been able to substantiate 32 complaints. This is due in part to a general wearing down of the rule in courts, as judges no longer prosecute for the mere application of pressure to the defendant’s neck.
But the report takes blaming the courts at the expense of all other actors into Orwellian territory. Perhaps the most outrageous suggestion is that the NYPD monitor court proceedings against its own officers. We’re pretty sure that’s not how checks on unbridled state power are supposed to work.
The real problem is not pervasive only in the courts, nor is it unique to chokehold complaints. The problem is that the NYPD, and cops in America writ large, are granted immunity from the laws they enforce with impunity. Between June 2009 and June 2014, the CCRB was able to substantiate 10 chokehold case and recommend charges be brought against the officers. As a result, a single officer lost 10 vacation days; three of the cases are still pending.
These numbers are consistent with the dismal rate at which civilian complaints against cops are substantiated, much less acted on. WNYC reported in August that in 2012 the New York CCRB received 5,471 complaints; the board recommended charges in only 175 of these cases, many of which never resulted in disciplinary action. On a national level, we’ve witnessed countless incidents in which cops don’t get charged for crimes that civilians do serious jail time for, ranging from the petty (smoking weed) to the grotesque (committing murder).
On the same day that the CCRB released its report, the family of Eric Garner announced that they intend to sue the city of New York. Though Garner’s case has received national attention and prompted a grand jury investigation that began hearing evidence last month, charges have still not been filed against the officers who killed him—business as usual for the NYC justice system.