NEW YORK – Community activists and Black law enforcement groups are speaking out against police use of the chokehold around the country after the death of Eric Garner, the victim of a chokehold by a New York police officer. A medical examiner ruled choking and chest compression killed the 43-year-old unarmed Black man in mid-July after an encounter with six officers in Staten Island, where he lived.
A videotape of the tragic incident caused shock, sorrow, anger and protests. A medical examiner Aug. 1 ruled the Garner death was a homicide and his asthma, high blood pressure and obesity contributed to his passing. The video shows police officer Daniel Pantaleo using the banned technique to wrestle Mr. Garner to the ground, and continuing to apply pressure as the father of six gasps, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
Another video surfaced showing NYPD officers using an apparent chokehold to restrain alleged turnstile jumper Ronald Johns, 24, in East Harlem.
Then there was a video made public July 28 showing NYPD officers placing a Brooklyn pregnant woman, Rosan Miller, 27, in an apparent chokehold on her porch for allegedly using a grill on her sidewalk.
It is distressing that police officers across the nation are using this tactic, even though they are not trained in using it safely, said Ron Hampton of Blacks in Law Enforcement of America. “The officers are so fixated on making the arrest–placing their arm around a person’s neck–as a means of controlling the arrest.”
According to the New York Law Journal, jurisdictions that have banned or limited use of chokeholds include Miami, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio and San Diego.
Complaints, lawsuits from north to south and east to west
Mr. Hampton, other Black law enforcement activists and advocates say there have been a plethora of complaints about chokehold use by police nationwide.
Attorney Malik Zulu Shabazz of Black Lawyers for Justice recently held a press conference in Petersburg, Va., to announce a multi-million dollar federal lawsuit against the city of Petersburg on behalf of Debra Fisher.
Mr. Shabazz told reporters Ms. Fisher was placed in a chokehold by police while standing on her porch. She protested harassment of her son who videotaped police actions outside the home, said the attorney. Police were placing several neighbors under arrest, according to media reports. Ms. Fisher was charged with interfering with police and obstruction of justice.
Earlier this year, members of the San Francisco Police Department allegedly placed a young Black man in a chokehold while making an arrest during a San Francisco Giant baseball game. Activists say the SFPD patrol guide manual bans choking.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska has filed a lawsuit over alleged use of the chokehold in Omaha. The ACLU of Washington, D.C., has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a 14-year-old alleging two transit police officers placed the teen in a chokehold, punched him in the torso and subdued him with pepper spray.
His crime was allegedly getting into a confrontation with another teen.
Payouts for lawsuits involving chokeholds vary from the $3 million paid to the widow of Anthony Baez in 1998 to $1.5 million paid to the relatives of 29-year-old Justin Boone, who died in 2009 after being put in a chokehold by Las Vegas police officers.
NYPD’s troubling chokehold history
“We have been fighting the use of the chokehold by the NYPD since 1978, when Arthur Miller, a community activist was killed by an officer using a night stick to apply the technique,” former city councilman Charles Barron told The Final Call.
In 1985, then Police Commissioner Ben Ward, the city’s first Black police chief, issued an order saying chokeholds could only be used if an officer or another individual’s life was in danger.
NYPD actively banned use of chokeholds in 1993, following the death of a man in custody for allegedly stealing cars in the borough of Queens. One officer was tried for manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide but acquitted in 1992, according to the N.Y. Law Journal.
The city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board reported 1,000 chokehold complaints had been received between 2009 and 2013. After investigating 462 cases, the board substantiated claims in nine cases and lacked evidence to make a determination in 206 cases.
Of the nine substantiated chokehold cases, the most serious action against the guilty officers was a loss of vacation days, according to the board.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Civilian Complaint Review Board chairman said there would be a study on why NYPD officers continue to use the forbidden tactic.
“We can tell you why the NYPD continues to use the chokehold, it is because they know when they get caught nothing is really going to happen to them,” said Charles Billups of the Grand Council of Guardians NYPD at a press conference in front of Police Department headquarters in lower Manhattan.
Mr. Billups was joined by members of the Law Enforcement Alliance, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care and Black Law Enforcement Officers of America.
All of the representatives of Black police organizations called for holding officers accountable. “These are rogue cops,” Mr. Billups told The Final Call.
“We do not support the lack of discipline, we are expecting the leadership of the NYPD to come down on its bad officers,” added Corey Pegues, co-founder of the Law Enforcement Alliance. Mr. Pegues was a deputy inspector when he retired from NYPD.
“We want Mayor de Blasio to rescind the appointment of Commissioner (William) Bratton immediately,” Mr. Barron added. “The mayor must stop the nonsense and look into who is being hired to police our streets. We want all applicants to undergo a racial and cultural sensitivity test before they are hired and that is a policy the mayor can institute.”
Mr. Barron’s community-based organization POWER was responsible for putting out the video of police manhandling the pregnant Brooklyn mother.
“The mayor must be held accountable for the actions of his police department,” said Monifa Bandele of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
Commissioner Bratton has said he didn’t believe Mr. Garner’s race had anything to do with the situation. “To claim that NYPD has practices that don’t adversely affect Black and Brown communities is the root of this problem. Our city has historically struggled with racial tensions between the police department and communities of color. The NYPD needs to focus on a cultural systemic shift within the department to really address this issue,” said Councilmember Jumaane D. Williams.
The Baez case is prominent in New York because officer Francis Livoti was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for violating the victim’s civil rights.
Chokeholds show police abuse problem, say activists
National activists Attorney Shabazz, Carl Dix of the Oct. 22 Coalition and groups like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the Newark-based Peoples Organization for Progress say a spike in chokehold cases shows police brutality is on the rise in the U.S.
“When it comes to the use of the chokehold, police use these illegal tactics all of the time, just another version of police brutality,” Attorney Shabazz said. Black Lawyers for Justice are investigating cases in Georgia and Florida, he said.
“A lot of grassroots organizations are engaged to fight back against this police brutality scourge,” said Ms. Bandele. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement plans to use social media as one tool to mobilize people, she said.
“Look we have all of these reforms in place, and Black people are still being killed and brutalized by police departments,” said Lawrence Hamm of the Peoples Organization for Progress. Clearly the chokehold problem is an extension of police brutality, he added.
Carl Dix told The Final Call plans are to make October a month of resistance against police brutality. “The October 22 Coalition against Police Brutality and Dr. Cornel West will be going across the country to get people to stop standing on the sidelines,” Mr. Dix said. We are hearing from people in the U.S. that cops are killing our people, he said.
“We need a new mentality to deal with this new Jim Crow,” Mr. Dix said.
Meanwhile in New York, the family of Eric Garner met with the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn to press for federal civil rights charges against the officers involved in his death and emergency medical workers, who allegedly showed up and did nothing to help him. Two police officers have been placed on modified duty and one officer has had his badge and gun taken away, while four emergency workers have been suspended.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Justice Department is monitoring the city’s investigation of the Garner death.