How minor crime questioning led to chokehold death of Eric Garner

New York police officers questioning Eric Garner about an alleged minor crime – selling cigarettes on the street – subdued Mr. Garner using a chokehold banned more than 20 years ago. Soon after, he was dead.

John Minchillo/AP
Esaw Garner, wife of Eric Garner, is helped off the stage by Rev. Herbert Daughtry and her daughter Emerald Garner after breaking down during a rally at the National Action Network headquarters for Eric Garner Saturday in New York.

Eric Garner, a New York man allegedly selling illegal “loosies” – single cigarettes – outside a Staten Island store, died Thursday after police used an unauthorized street fighting move known as a “chokehold” to subdue the 350-pound man.

The stark contrast between a minor street crime – one which Mr. Garner had been arrested for many times – and the tragic consequence of leaving a widow with six kids has forced New Yorkers to revisit some of the darker chapters for the city’s elite but oft-chastised police force, and to rehash what many thought were long-settled issues.

According to Police commissioner William Bratton, chokeholds used by at least two police officers to subdue Garner came after the man pleaded with a gaggle of officers to leave him alone as he was “minding his own business.”

“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me,” Garner can be heard saying. “I'm tired of it. It stops today. I'm minding my business please just leave me alone."

The encounter escalated to the point of a faceoff, whereupon one officer wraps his arm around his neck even as Garner, now on the ground, pleads that he can’t breathe. A few minutes later Garner loses consciousness as the officer mashed his face into the sidewalk – the victim of a fatal heart attack.

Enough of the ordeal was captured by an amateur photographer’s camera for Mayor Bill de Blasio to rule the death “a terrible tragedy.” A bigger question remained: Why did two veteran officers feel free to employ a tactic banned in 1993, especially given that a civil conversation may have deescalated the ordeal.

It was all the way back in 1983 when the department, following several asphyxiation deaths, banned the practice except in cases of imminent danger to the police officer. In 1994, a year after the city banned the tactic altogether, NYPD Officer Francis Livoti killed Bronx resident Anthony Baez with a chokehold after Mr. Livoti’s cruiser was hit by a football being thrown around by friends. Livoti was found not guilty of negligent homicide, but later served seven years in prison after a federal court found he violated Baez’ civil rights.

"Chokeholds are prohibited by the New York City Police Department and most departments," Commissioner Bratton said at a news conference Friday. Mr. Bratton also noted that "Mr. Garner repeatedly complained of difficulty breathing as the officers wrestled him to the ground."

Policing experts say that it’s fine to ask officers to be more careful with aggressive subjects, but that once an incident escalates into a street fight that all bets are essentially off.

"The hard truth about street policing is there's a tremendous amount of improvisation," Eugene O'Donnell, a former cop and now a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice told the New York Daily News.  "[Officers] get some very generalized guidance, typically, which is not very valuable once you have to make the decision to use force."

The fact that at least two officers utilized it has been enough to spark an inquest and investigation into Garner’s death.

The Rev. Al Sharpton held a vigil for Garner amid calls for justice as the widow, Esaw Garner, clung to Sharpton in tears.

The New York Police Department and mayors have fought for controversial tactics that focus on low-level crimes, arguing tactics like the controversial “stop-and-frisks” are not only constitutional but effective in curbing local crime rates. Some courts have disagreed with at least the first notion, forcing the city to largely abandon the policy.

Other major US police departments, including in Atlanta, are putting less emphasis on penny-ante arrests because of the wedge they tend to drive between tougher neighborhoods and the police officers that serve them. 

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