Beyond Eric Garner: NYPD Has Been Freely Using Illegal Chokeholds Despite 1993 Ban

Human Rights

Police chokeholds have been banned since 1993, but New York Police Department officers have been using them and getting away with it ever since then.  

Between 2009 and June 2014, the New York City Inspector General studied 10 instances in which NYPD officers applied illegal chokeholds on suspects, according to the New York Times. In each instance, the NYPD ignored disciplinary recommendations by the Civilian Complaint Review Board that included suspension or termination. Of the 10 cases studied, seven occurred during former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration when Ray Kelly was serving as police commissioner. Kelly departed from the recommendations of the review board and in nearly every case, offered a lesser punishment or none at all. One cop under review died before the process concluded. 

In many instances, the encounter that led to an officer applying the chokehold did not require physical force in the first place. 

On Aug. 26, 2009, a man was rapping with his friends in front of a building in Brooklyn. The man allegedly said something to passing cops. The encounter turned physical, with a cop placing the man in a chokehold. The review board confirmed that the banned chokehold happened, and recommended that the cop be suspended or fired. The officer was given the lowest punishment, a review of the rules. 

On Nov. 19, 2008, a 15-year-old boy being held on robbery charges was handcuffed to a bar inside of a Bronx precinct. The teenager says an officer stood behind him and applied a chokehold. The claim was confirmed by a superior officer and another teenager being held at the precinct who witnessed the incident. The review board reconfirmed the claim and recommended harsh punishment for the officer involved. No discipline was imposed.

“These are pretty serious cases,”  Philip K. Eure, the inspector general, told The Times. “Obviously, we are going to be looking at a broader sample of cases to see if it’s more systemic. But people should be troubled by the disconnect that we determined exists already in the disciplinary process.”

The inspector general's report on the chokehold cases comes at a time when relations between the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio are at their worst. On Tuesday, de Blasio said he would veto a bill by the city council that would make chokeholds illegal, arguing that the current ban is sufficient, according to the New York Daily News

"One officer and one perpetrator in a death struggle - in that instance the officer has the right to use any and all tools he can to save his life," de Blasio said when asked about the bill during an unrelated news conference, according to Reuters. "I'm not going to agree to a situation where an officer is in that life-and-death struggle, thank God survives, and then faces criminal charges. That's unacceptable."

The current bill would make the use of chokeholds during arrests punishable by up to a year in prison or a fine of $2,500.

Rory Lancman, the city councilman who co-authored the bill, told Reuters that Eric Garner's death and other instances when the chokehold was applied proves the NYPD is ignoring its own internal ban of the maneuver.

"In many circumstances it's not a maneuver of last resort," Lancman said. "It's the first technique that they applied."

Mayor de Blasio's vow to veto the chokehold bill seems to be a political move aimed at mending his relationship with the NYPD. But it also can be see as a slap in the face to progressive voters who took his campaign promise of reforming the NYPD at face value. 

As it stands, it's hard not to believe that the mayor is playing nice with the NYPD to save his mayorship. That's good for de Blasio, but not so good for a New Yorker whose encounter with a cop could mirror that of Eric Garner's: choked to death and having the cop get away with it. 

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