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Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke to the news media last week about the death of Eric Garner.
SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES
JULY 21, 2014
From 2009 to 2013, an oversight board substantiated nine complaints by people who said New York City police officers restrained them with a chokehold, a banned tactic that may have played a role in the death of a Staten Island man last week.
In each of the nine cases, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that investigates police misconduct, recommended that the Police Department pursue the strongest form of punishment for the officers: an administrative trial, which could lead to termination.
But the police commissioner has the final say in such cases, and in all but one of the cases decided, the officers were not disciplined, or were given the lightest possible sanction: a review of the rules.
The department’s response in the nine cases, documented in monthly reports by the board, raised uncomfortable questions for the Police Department, which prohibits chokeholds because of the risk of serious injury or death, but in practice appears to treat the maneuver as little more than a lapse.
Mr. Garner was confronted by the police on Thursday after he was suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, the authorities said.
FAMILY PHOTO, VIA NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK, VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
How the department treats officers in such situations has come under new scrutiny after the death of the Staten Island man, Eric Garner, who was held by an officer in an apparent chokehold on Thursday. The officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was stripped of his badge and gun as an investigation into the death goes on.
Video of the arrest, apparently for selling untaxed cigarettes, appeared to show Officer Pantaleo wrapping his arm around the neck of Mr. Garner, who had been arguing with officers and objecting to being arrested. The two men fell to the ground, and other officers joined in restraining Mr. Garner as he said he was not able to breathe.
The two emergency medical technicians and the two paramedics who responded to Mr. Garner have been suspended without pay, the Richmond University Medical Center said Monday.
Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said the video appeared to show a chokehold.
Josmar Trujillo, an activist of New Yorkers Against Bratton, spoke to the news media during a protest outside City Hall on Monday. Several activists gathered to protest after the death of Mr. Garner.
HIROKO MASUIKE / THE NEW YORK TIMES
“Each case must be considered as to the specifics of the underlying actions,” said Stephen Davis, the department’s top spokesman. “The circumstances vary as to a number of different variables, ‘dangerousness’ being just one of them, the nature of the ‘chokehold’ being another.”
Mr. Bratton has said the practice, more common in the 1980s before many departments banned its use, had not been a problem in the first six months of his tenure. He told reporters Friday that officers were officially reminded last year that chokeholds are not allowed.
Despite the ban, complaints of officers’ using chokeholds have steadily come before the review board. From 2009 to 2013, the board received 1,022 such complaints. In nine of those cases, investigators were able to find evidence to back up the complaint and bring it to the attention of the department.
Details of the nine substantiated cases were not immediately available, except for the precincts where they occurred and the basics of the dispositions. Most took place in the Bronx and Brooklyn; none were on Staten Island.
The review board recommended that each officer be brought before an administrative court, on the fourth floor of Police Headquarters, where a department judge would rule in the case. If found guilty, the officer would face suspension or possible termination.
But in two cases of chokeholds, in 2009 and in 2010, the department under Raymond W. Kelly, then commissioner, declined altogether to pursue an administrative trial, effectively deciding not to discipline the officer.
In three cases, from 2009 to 2011, officers were issued “instructions” by Mr. Kelly, a designation that amounts to retraining on the rules. One officer retired before a judgment could be ruled, and two cases from 2013 are still pending a decision in an administrative trial.
One pending case began with plainclothes officers approaching a man for riding his bike on a Queens sidewalk in January 2012, and ended with the officer and the man wrestling on the ground. The man said the officer held him in a chokehold for more than a minute; the officer has denied doing so.
Only once in the last five years, August 2009, did Mr. Kelly issue a modest punishment against an officer for a chokehold, a command discipline that carried a loss of vacation days.
So far, Mr. Bratton has not had to decide whether and how to discipline an officer for a chokehold. There is no set time, after a trial, for the police commissioner to render his decision. In the previous administration, such decisions could take up to a year. The last time a person died from an apparent chokehold was 1994; Mr. Bratton was commissioner then as well. A federal jury eventually convicted the officer.
At least one complaint reported to the department in 2014 has been substantiated so far: a case in February in the 77th Precinct in Brooklyn. In that case, the review board recommended charges. A trial has yet to be scheduled.