And in Brooklyn, a plainclothes officer pinned an 18-year-old against a lamp post, his forearm choking off the teenager’s air supply while he was patted down.
The incidents all happened in the last three years, after the Police Department spent $35 million to retrain patrol officers not to employ strangleholds after the death of Eric Garner.
Records of complaints show the banned holds are still being used by some officers, and only a tiny fraction of officers accused of chokeholds have been found guilty and have faced discipline. When they do, the punishment meted out has been remedial training and the loss of vacation time. None have been fired.
The department’s record in stopping the use of chokeholds is likely to come under increased scrutiny when Daniel Pantaleo, the officer accused of choking Garner, faces a departmental trial scheduled to start Monday. He could be fired if he is found guilty.
Garner, who was in poor health, died in 2014 after Pantaleo put him in a chokehold and he and other officers compressed his chest against the ground while arresting him on Staten Island on charges of selling loose cigarettes. A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on criminal charges.
Stuart London, who is representing Pantaleo in his department trial, said in an interview that his client used a “seat belt maneuver” and at no point restricted Garner’s breathing. “My client was just attempting to control him,” London said. “It was never a chokehold.”
Garner’s death, and his protest, “I can’t breathe,” became a flash point in the Black Lives Matter movement and the national debate over deadly police force.
Police officials can claim some success in reducing the number of chokehold complaints since his death. Last year, 133 complaints were made, the fewest in a decade. Chokehold complaints have steadily declined every year since Garner’s death five years ago, when they peaked at 244 allegations.
At the same time, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an oversight agency that investigates allegations of police misconduct, has substantiated significantly more complaints each year than it did before the Garner case, finding evidence that 40 officers have used chokeholds since the beginning of 2015.
Still, only 10 of those officers are known to have faced discipline for their actions, the board’s data shows. All told, less than 2% of the 820 complaints over the last five years are known to have led to an officer being disciplined. Some cases are pending, and in other cases the outcome is not released.
Most officers who were disciplined received either remedial training or the loss of paid vacation days. In at least three cases, the police commissioner overturned a guilty verdict against the officers.
The Police Department banned chokeholds in 1993 during Raymond Kelly’s first term as police commissioner. Yet chokeholds continued to crop up in complaints made to the review board.
After Garner’s death, the police commissioner at the time, William Bratton, promised to retrain officers and crack down on the dangerous practice.
“That’s where the training effort is,” he said at a City Council hearing, “to try to improve upon their capabilities to make these arrests with the minimum use of force appropriate.”
Yet Bratton also changed the department’s policy in June 2016, providing an “exigent circumstances” exemption to what was previously a blanket ban.
Police officials have defended loosening the policy, saying it takes into account special situations, like terrorist attacks or cases in which officers are cornered or outnumbered.
Critics of the Police Department, however, said the change sent the wrong message. “It tells you everything you need to know that two years after Eric Garner was killed, the department actually made it easier for officers to justify the use of a chokehold,” said Councilman Rory Lancman, D-Queens, who has introduced a bill that would make it misdemeanor for the police to use chokeholds.
When the department retrained the force on physical restraints after Garner’s death, some officers said the $35 million refresher was a waste of time and lacked hands-on scenarios.
According to Eugene O’Donnell, a former lieutenant and a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, one reason the practice persists is that most officers lack training in better ways to restrain people. “They’re minimally trained,” he said. “It’s all improvisation, all the time.”
Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo, who plays a central role in training and policymaking, said the Police Department’s policy on chokeholds is sound and consistent with contemporary policing practices.
“The new policy is explicit: It makes clear that force must be reasonable under the circumstance, it requires de-escalation when safe and appropriate, and it makes clear that deadly force is only to be used to protect life,” Pontillo said.
Inspector Richard Dee, who oversees recruit training for the department, said recruits are taught four or five methods of taking someone into custody without restricting someone’s breathing, including arm bars, in which officers move a suspect’s straightened arm behind his back, and takedowns, a kind of controlled fall.
Still, three recent complaints offer a window into how chokeholds continue to be used.
One came from Thomas Medina, who testified that Detective Fabio Nunez choked him from behind as he was being arrested and put into a patrol car in July.
The incident happened outside a car dealership on 206th Street in Manhattan. A video shows Medina walking into the dealership after speaking with Nunez and his partner.
Nunez then followed Medina, grabbed him by his neck and forced him up against a car. Then, the detective wrapped his right arm around Medina’s neck and choked him for 22 seconds, as a second officer tried to handcuff him, the videotape showed.
Medina broke free, with the handcuffs still around one wrist, and Nunez shocked him with a Taser before arresting him on charges of felony assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. That case is slated for a departmental trial.
Nunez did not respond to a request for comment.
Another incident, which reached the trial room in February, involved three plainclothes officers who roughed up a teenager in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, who they thought had a gun.
In August 2016, the officers got out of a car and tried to arrest Lakee McKinney, 18, outside his apartment building on Pulaski Street. When he resisted, Officer David Mercado punched his face and then pressed his right forearm against the teenager’s throat for half a minute while patting him down, the teenager testified.
“I couldn’t breathe — every time I was trying to speak, he applied pressure,” McKinney testified in February. He said the officers did not identify themselves, and he thought he was being robbed. “He treated me as if I were a dumb person, like I was a piece of meat,” McKinney said.
Mercado, who was later promoted to sergeant, claimed he was investigating an anonymous tip of an armed man at the corner where McKinney was standing. No weapon was found.
Mercado’s lawyer, John Tynan, argued that the teenager had resisted the officers and that his client’s actions were justified and within department guidelines.
The outcome of Mercado’s case remains secret under New York state law. He faced a potential loss of 15 vacation days.
A third recent trial centered on an arrest made in July 2017 after a drunken brawl in front of a pool hall in the South Bronx.
One of the brawlers, Manny Gonzalez, was thrown to the ground by an officer, handcuffed and marched to a squad car.
A video of the incident, shown during the trial, showed an officer, Majeed Arif, escorting him. Arif then grabbed Gonzalez from behind, wrapped his fingers around his neck and squeezed. A bystander yelled, “You’re choking him — you’re wilding, you’re wilding.”
Tynan, who was also Arif’s lawyer, argued that his client had not grabbed Gonzalez’s neck. He said the roughness seen in the video was justified because Gonzalez had been “hopped up on beer muscles and his outrage” and “policing is a contact sport.”
Simone Manigo, a Civilian Complaint Review Board lawyer who brought the case, scoffed at those explantations for Arif’s actions. “A chokehold is a chokehold,” Manigo said. The outcome of the case was also kept secret under state law.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.