More suspensions after chokehold death, complaints grow about NYPD tactics

Two paramedics and two emergency medical technicians who responded to the scene where Eric Garner was allegedly put in a police chokehold have been suspended without pay. His death is fueling community outrage.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
Candles are seen at the memorial of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, July 21, 2014. Garner, a New York street peddler, died in police custody last week after being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.

Two paramedics and two emergency medical technicians were suspended without pay Monday as officials proceed with investigating the death of Eric Garner, a New York street peddler who died in police custody last week after being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.

The emergency services workers are not public employees but work for the Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island, where Mr. Garner was declared dead after New York Police Department officers apparently put him in a chokehold. The workers, who responded to the scene, may not have followed standard emergency protocols as Garner, a 350-pound black man, lay motionless on the street.

The emergency workers’ inaction, combined with the chokehold that police officers may have used to subdue the neighborhood's well-known and well-liked father of six, has continued to fuel community outrage over Garner’s death.

The death has also resparked minority complaints about the tactics of the NYPD, including stop-and-frisk and the “broken windows” theory of policing, pioneered by Commissioner William Bratton during his first tenure in New York two decades ago. The theory focuses on penny-ante misdemeanors in high-crime neighborhoods to create a sense of law and order.

“Why does the NYPD see fit to throw someone in a chokehold over 50 cent cigarettes?” said Josmar Trujillo, a community activist from Rockaway Park, Queens, at a rally outside City Hall Monday. “It’s not just that harassment or inconvenience of being stopped. There are real physical threats to our bodies every single day, and until you live in our communities, you won’t know that reality.”

Two police officers at the scene have also been placed on desk duty this week, with pay, as internal affairs officers continue to investigate the arrest. The officer who allegedly placed Garner in the chokehold is Daniel Pantaleo, an eight-year veteran who has been accused of civil rights violations in at least two lawsuits this year, including one settled in January for $30,000. After last week’s incident, he was ordered to turn in his badge and gun.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, now vacationing in Rome with his family, told reporters following him that he is committed to a full investigation, refusing to pass judgment on the actions of the NYPD. 

"I ... emphasize that you need a full investigation, because all sides need to be heard and all evidence looked at," he said, adding that, though he is no expert, police indeed appeared to use the prohibited restraining technique.

Garner, who had a long rap sheet of petty offenses over the years, including marijuana possession and driving without a license, became unconscious after Officer Pantaleo put him in a headlock while at least three other officers wrestled him to the ground. During the incident, which was captured by numerous smart-phone videos taken by bystanders, Garner can be heard gasping, “I can’t breathe,” repeatedly.

By the time the emergency workers arrived, Garner was lying unconscious on the sidewalk, his hands cuffed behind his back. But paramedics and EMTs did nothing but check his pulse with their fingers before at least six police officers and medical personnel grabbed his arms and legs and slung him onto a stretcher.

“Obviously, state protocol is that if someone’s having difficulty breathing, you’re supposed to give them supplemental oxygen,” Israel Miranda, president of the Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics & Fire Inspectors F.D.N.Y. Local 2507, told The New York Times. “Based on the video, I didn’t see anything being done at that point.” Mr. Miranda's union does not represent the suspended workers.

EMS workers are supposed to ensure that an unconscious, unresponsive patient’s air passages are clear and then provide oxygen, medical experts say. They should also place a cervical spine collar on stricken patients – especially to protect the neck after a chokehold.

For some reason, the gurney was not lowered to ground level, as most are equipped to do, and Garner’s head slumped backward as officers and medical workers struggled clumsily to sling his 350-pound frame to the stretcher, which was above waist level, a video of the incident shows.

“They did the most inartful transfer of a patient to a stretcher that I’ve ever seen,” Dr. Alexander Kuehl, former head of New York’s Emergency Medical Services, told the Times.

For activists, such indifference has long typified the way police officers and emergency workers approach their communities, even as the NYPD devotes more time and resources to battle low-level crimes in high-crime, mostly minority neighborhoods.

These include felony arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana, which has been mostly decriminalized since the 1970s. However, during stop-and-frisk pat-downs, officers can instruct individuals to empty their pockets. Once they do, any marijuana then becomes “in open view,” a felony misdemeanor.

Police make these kinds of arrests almost exclusively in minority neighborhoods, and more than 85 percent of those arrested are black or Latin men. Surveys consistently show that whites consume as much or more of the drug. 

“The NYPD has never choked a banker,” has become a refrain among many community members since Garner’s death.

According to a recent random check of hundreds of arraignments in New York City courts, 100 percent of those booked on other minor violations, such as smoking in prohibited spaces or taking two seats on a subway car, were minorities, according to the Police Reform Organizing Project, a Manhattan-based community organization.

Commissioner Bratton has also gone after unauthorized subway performers, who sing or dance or for money on platforms and trains. Arrests of these mostly minority performers are up 700 percent since he began his second tenure in January, according to Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College, who wrote an op-ed for the New York Daily News.

“If de Blasio is serious about reducing inequality, he has to do something to dial back the aggressive targeting of poor people of color by the NYPD,” wrote Professor Vitale, who has studied the effects of broken windows policing.

“If not, he will exacerbate the inequalities he’s vowed to reduce and undermine police authority,” he continued, “making officers’ jobs more difficult and dangerous and leading to tragic outcomes like the case of Eric Garner.”

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