Swirling around the controversy in the NYPD killing of Eric Garner was the use of a maneuver called a “chokehold” by those charged with giving names to the things cops do to people. I say “swirling,” because some don’t see what happened as a chokehold, others don’t see it as choke-y enough to have done much damage to their lay eye, and still others watching the video decline to say with certainty that it was the cause of death.
Then there are those who wonder why Officer Daniel Pantaleo didn’t just pull his weapon, blow Garner’s head off and end the issue without risk of getting his uniform dirty. After all, he could have just complied, so he was asking for it.
Of course, everyone believes they’re entitled to an opinion on such matters, because this is America and knowledge is a highly over-rated commodity. NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton saw a chokehold. A former police officer and instructor here saw a chokehold. But you didn’t. Well, your opinion matters too. Just not as much as someone who actually knows something about the subject.
The “chokehold” uses the forearm to compress a person’s windpipe such that it cuts off the flow of air to the lungs, which in turn can cause death by asphyxiation. It’s considered a lethal maneuver, and its use was prohibited by the NYPD Patrol Guide in 1993.
The Patrol Guide is a voluminous book of rules for police officers, covering everything from the most mundane aspects of the job to the most serious. Regardless of whether you think it’s a cool move, it is forbidden.
So if it’s a prohibited move for more than 20 years, why is it still used? If you believe in incentives, this may be the problem:
Despite the ban, complaints of officers’ using chokeholds have steadily come before the [Civilian Complaint] review board. From 2009 to 2013, the board received 1,022 such complaints. In nine of those cases, investigators were able to find evidence to back up the complaint and bring it to the attention of the department.
The review board recommended that each officer be brought before an administrative court, on the fourth floor of Police Headquarters, where a department judge would rule in the case. If found guilty, the officer would face suspension or possible termination.
As it turned out, only one of the nine cops suffered any discipline, which was loss of vacation days. Lest it be dismissed too quickly, the 1,022 complaints reflect only those people who thought it worth their while to bring the matter to the CCRB, which tends to be a small fraction of people who are the subject of excessive force.
And as that number reflects, the CCRB is in no rush to find a force complaint substantiated against a cop, which is why so few bother to file complaints. It’s a well-known waste of time and effort before a toothless board disinclined to do its job under the best of circumstances. And still there were 1,022 complaints.
So there is no incentive for cops to not use the chokehold since there are no repercussions for doing so. Had there been no video of Eric Garner’s killing, we wouldn’t be discussing it now.
However, there is a video, and so far more work needs to go into explaining away the use of a prohibited maneuver in order to relieve Pantaleo of culpability. But the focus on one cop’s use of a lethal and prohibited hold tends to obscure certain problems and misdirect the discussion. There can be no argument that the hold used was prohibited. The Patrol Guide says so, even if the CCRB and Ray Kelly don’t get too upset when a cop does so.
The use of the chokehold, as opposed to other holds and maneuvers designed to allow police to physically overcome a person with the least possible risk of the cop suffering a scratch, may be circumstantial or intentional; Pantaleo, for example, jumped Garner from behind and had to do something, so his forearm went around his neck. No doubt Pantaleo didn’t plan on killing Garner. Maybe he didn’t plan on using a chokehold. Likely, he didn’t plan at all.
This is where the discussion goes astray. Let’s assume for a moment that the police “untaxed cigarette” myth* was the cause of the bust. This raises a few questions:
1. Is this offense worthy of the death penalty? Because if the suspect ends up dead from actions set in motion in order to save society from the initial basis for the police action, that’s how the math works out.
2. Was there a need for force at all? Was the suspect about to flee or do harm to the police (or anyone else)?
3. Did the police handling of the interaction cause it to escalate to the use of force?
The third question is the most important. There is a moment in almost every police interaction where a choice is made to turn a peaceable interaction into one where force is used. Most of the time, that choice is made by a cop who decides he’s had enough, grown impatient with the lack of compliance, and decides that it’s time to take the perp down, even though the person has done nothing worthy of the death penalty, not tried to flee or harm anyone, and not escalated the situation.
The chokehold may be lethal, but nowhere as lethal as the decision to turn a peaceable interaction into the use of force. This is the most lethal, harmful thing police do, and no meaningful discussion of why Eric Garner had to die can be had if this isn’t understood.
* When the incident first happened, the story was that the police arrived because of a fight on the street, which Eric Garner broke up. The two fighters were gone by the time the cops showed, but Garner, known to them to sell loose cigarettes without charging tax (?), was still there. A few cops, a radio run, a little mouthiness, and someone decided that something had to make it all pay off.
The next day, it became a bust over untaxed cigarettes and the fight Garner broke up was all but forgotten. Through force of repetition, by police and then journalists, the untaxed cigarettes became the “myth of the case,” now real and repeated in every story even if it didn’t exist at the outset. Absent some evidence to support this myth, I am disinclined to accept it or promote it.