From 2009 to 2013, the civilian police oversight board received roughly 1,000 chokehold complaints and substantiated nine incidents in which chokeholds were used against citizens. But in 2014 alone, the board found that chokeholds were used at least six times, and last month they documented a seventh.
“These new figures suggest that chokeholds have been an even more serious problem than we realized,” NYCLU associate legal director Chris Dunn told the Times.
The Times report hints at the debate within the department over the use of chokeholds that has been raging since Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold last July. Some want to reinforce the department's chokehold ban, and "stay the hell away from the neck," as one NYPD official put it in 1993, while others want to train officers to use chokeholds in the same way they're trained to use firearms.
In the aftermath of Mr. Garner’s death, top police officials are debating whether to go further and alter the ban to formally allow chokeholds in life-or-death situations.
At the same time, top officials are strongly considering eliminating the term “chokehold” from The Patrol Guide, the department’s internal rulebook, and replacing it with any “pressure on the neck,” said a police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the discussions, over a variety of use-of-force policies, had yet to reach any conclusion.
In one possibility being explored by officials, chokeholds could be taught at the Police Academy and officers who use one against a suspect would have their actions reviewed, much like what happens after a police shooting.
"What I'm concerned about from the article is that the police department seems to be contemplating going in the opposite direction and authorizing the use of chokeholds with the hopes that officers might be properly trained to use them," Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman tells us. Lancman is the sponsor of a bill that would outlaw the use of chokeholds.
"That is a recipe for disaster and it would be cruelly ironic if the public policy outcome of Eric Garner's death by chokehold was the expansion of the use of chokeholds rather than their further restriction."
A chokehold report released by the NYPD Inspector General's office last month found that the police department rarely disciplined officers found to have used chokeholds, even though 78% of them had two or more prior use of force complaints filed against them.
"Of the six chokehold cases reviewed for this study where the Police Commissioner made a final disciplinary determination, the Police Commissioner departed from the disciplinary recommendation of CCRB every time, imposing a less severe penalty or, in two cases, no penalty at all," the IG report [PDF] reads.
The leniency has all but rendered the department's official chokehold ban toothless. Despite the Medical Examiner explicitly stating that Eric Garner's death was a homicide by a "choke hold," and his initial statement that Garner was killed by a chokehold, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has backed away from that assessment.
“I’ve been around a long time in this business. What appears to be sometimes may not be what it is," Bratton told CNN in December.
After weeks of acrimonious relations with the NYPD that resulted in a widespread "slowdown" of enforcement activities and prompted cops to turn their back to him at the funerals for two slain officers, Mayor de Blasio announced that he would veto Lancman's bill if it passed. Previously, the mayor had said, "I think the best way to handle that is through NYPD policy."
A spokesman for the mayor did not return our request for comment on the new chokehold data.
"I understand the argument that we've got this ban in the police department's patrol guide," Councilmember Lancman said, referring to the mayor's opposition of his bill. "But we see again and again that prohibition is not having the deterrent effect that it needs to have. So the burden is on those who oppose upping the ante to show how what we have been doing for the last twdecades is working."