Death of New York man sparks closer look at police use of chokeholds

The Rev. Al Sharpton, left, and members of Eric Garner's family lead a march toward the site of Garner's fatal confrontation with New York City police. Police were trying to arrest Garner on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, left, and members of Eric Garner’s family lead a march toward the site of Garner’s fatal confrontation with New York City police. Police were trying to arrest Garner on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

The death of a New York City man who was allegedly placed in a chokehold by a police officer last week has reignited discussions about an arrest tactic that has been outlawed in most police departments and linked to dozens of in-custody deaths.

The case of Eric Garner has unleashed torrents of criticism. On Saturday, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Garner’s family led a march on a police precinct in Staten Island.

Generally, officers are not allowed to use chokeholds to subdue suspects in most major American police departments, law enforcement experts said. But while struggling with a suspect, especially one as large as Garner, an officer may look to end a confrontation quickly in a way that is least likely to result in injury to both cop and suspect.

“Struggles between police officers and resisting individuals are not choreographed events,” said Wayne Fisher, a professor of police studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “They occur spontaneously and it’s quite possible that an officer’s arm could wind up around somebody’s throat.”

Garner was approached by officers who were investigating the sale of loose cigarettes around 3:30 p.m. Thursday. Videos of the incident show Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island man with chronic asthma, pleading with officers to leave him alone before one applies what appears to be a chokehold.


Garner crumples to the ground, according to one video, and repeatedly says, “I can’t breathe,” while another officer presses his head to the sidewalk.

New York City’s Citizen Complaint Review Board received 50 complaints about officers using chokeholds from January to June, records show. Only one complaint was substantiated.

The NYPD and Los Angeles Police Department outlawed chokeholds decades ago. Then-NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued a ban in 1993.

The Los Angeles City Council did the same in 1982, not long after then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates sparked a furor when he suggested black people were more susceptible to death via chokehold than those of other races.

“It seems to me that we may be finding that in some blacks when it is applied, the veins or the arteries do not open as fast as they do on normal people,” Gates said at the time.

Chokeholds were also removed from many police training regimens across the country, according to Eugene O’Donnell, a former district attorney in Brooklyn and Queens who investigated NYPD use-of-force cases.

O’Donnell said the officers in the Garner case may not have applied what is technically deemed a chokehold, and they may not have known how to execute the maneuver.

At a news conference held the day after Garner died, New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said the maneuver appeared “to have been a chokehold,” but said the incident required further investigation.

O’Donnell also said the situation with Garner may not be as cut and dried as many suggest.

Garner had a distinct height and weight advantage over the officers, and appeared to be resisting arrest, O’Donnell said.

“In this case the guy is 350 pounds … in that case, on the video, the guy clearly won’t allow himself to be handcuffed, and if you look at that particular video, the cops look awfully small compared to him,” he said. “So how do you get someone to allow themselves to be handcuffed quickly so he and you don’t get hurt? I’m not sure any department has a great secret formula.”

Garner had been arrested twice in recent months by officers from the 120th Precinct, which oversees the area where he died.

On Saturday the NYPD identified one of the officers in the Garner case as Daniel Pantaleo and said he had been placed on “modified duty.” The police union blasted the move as “absolutely wrong.”

Garner’s death has infuriated residents and could rekindle the mistrust between officers and residents that has been exacerbated by the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics and spying on Muslim communities in recent years.

“After you look at the video and the use of this chokehold, which is against departmental procedure, there is no justification, at all, on this chokehold. And there is clearly no reason when a man is saying, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ that you maintain this chokehold,” Sharpton said Saturday.

Public outcry and media attention aside, O’Donnell said the fact that the officers were making an arrest, even for such a minor crime, helps minimize the likelihood that criminal charges will be filed.

“This case is much more difficult for prosecutors because it’s a legitimate arrest,” he said. “Even though we would think it’s a stupid arrest.”