It’s been just over five years since the death of Eric Garner as he was being arrested for selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. This month, the New York Police Department (NYPD) fired the officer who placed him in a chokehold as he and fellow NYPD officers held him on the ground. Garner’s exclamation, “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for people across the country protesting excessive force by law enforcement officers.
According to the NYPD, the officer, who was never indicted on criminal charges, was using a procedure that was prohibited in 1993 under Commissioner Ray Kelly. However, there’s considerable evidence that chokeholds have been used on multiple occasions during the ensuing years.
Further, restrictions on the prohibition were loosened under Commissioner William Bratton over 23 years later (two years after Garner’s death). Bratton changed department policy to allow chokeholds under “exigent circumstances” like terrorist attacks or situations where officers are outnumbered or cornered.
However, he told the City Council that he was launching an officer retraining effort “to try to improve upon their capabilities to make these arrests with the minimum use of force appropriate.”
Complaints about NYPD officers using chokeholds have continued over the years. The exact numbers are unknown. In 2018, the NYPD reportedly received 133 complaints — the fewest in 10 years and a little over half what they were the year Garner died.
However, according to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates police misconduct allegations, the number of reports of chokeholds has increased each year since 2014. The oversight agency says it’s found evidence that some 40 NYPD officers have used the maneuver in the past four years. However, it says that it was able to find records of disciplinary action against only a quarter of those officers. The discipline typically involved loss of vacation time or remedial training.
Interestingly, the attorney for the officer fired in the Garner case claims that what his client used was not a chokehold but a “seatbelt maneuver” to control him and that it did not impact Garner’s ability to breathe.
When law enforcement officers use excessive force or engage in other misconduct, they violate the civil rights of the people with whom they’re dealing. If you believe that you or a loved one has been the victim of police misconduct, it may be wise to consult with an attorney to determine what your options are.