In the months since the death of Staten Island man Eric Garner sparked an intense debate about the use of chokeholds as an acceptable police maneuver, Rory Lancman has been adamant that officers who administer chokeholds should be criminally charged. On Thursday, Lancman, a New York City Councilman from Queens, introduced a bill that would allow the city to do just that.
Chokeholds, which have been banned by NYPD policy since at least 1993, became a subject of renewed focus after Garner was killed during a July encounter with police who used the maneuver while arresting him for a minor crime.
See also: Is this a chokehold? You tell us.
Lancman’s bill, co-sponsored by fellow councilmembers Jumaane Williams and Robert Cornegy, would subject police to a misdemeanor charge if they use a chokehold. Previously the only sanctions for police officers were internal disciplinary measures or reprimands from the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).
Our cover story in September explored the history of chokeholds as a tactic used by police and told the story of Angel Martinez, a young man from Brooklyn who says he was choked during an arrest in 2012.
See also: ‘I was Choked by the NYPD’
“Our goal is not to put anyone in prison,” Lancman tells the Voice, “it’s to make it clear that performing a chokehold is really, truly prohibited.”
A report released in October by the CCRB — the city’s independent body charged with investigating allegations of excessive force or impermissible tactics like chokeholds — found that the department had “failed to enforce” the prohibition despite the longstanding ban. It also found deficiencies within its own system that led to chokeholds being miscategorized, concealing the scope of the problem; only 1,128 allegations had been categorized as chokehold complaints, though the report concluded that the number was probably significantly higher.
Maybe the most problematic issue the CCRB report uncovered was that investigators, within both that body and the NYPD itself, were using inconsistent definitions of what a chokehold actually is.
The definition under the NYPD patrol guide, a kind of handbook for officers, describes it as “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” Some investigators had concluded that breathing and air intake had to be limited in a significant way — often relying on some reference to the duration of the hold — to determine if a chokehold had actually been used.
Lancman’s bill uses a slightly broader definition, saying ” ‘chokehold’ means to wrap an arm around or grip the neck in a manner that limits or cuts off either the flow of air by compressing the windpipe, or the flow of blood through the carotid arteries on each side of the neck.” It likewise contains no time restriction, and Lancman said that was deliberate, pointing out that the chokehold that killed Garner was of a relatively short duration.
Chokeholds were for decades regarded as a perfectly safe and even humane method of subduing a violent suspect. That all began to change in the early 1980s, after a series of high-profile deaths in Los Angeles prompted police departments across the country to drastically restrict their use. The NYPD sharply curtailed the tactic at the time, and instituted a total ban in 1993, after the death of Federico Pereira, a 21-year-old killed during an arrest in Queens.
“Chokeholds are inherently dangerous and unpredictable,” says Lancman. “And that’s why the NYPD itself banned them as a matter of policy. So this is not just some do-goody councilmember saying chokeholds are dangerous.”
A spokesperson for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a major police union, did not return a call for comment by press time. A CCRB spokesperson also didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
Read the full text of the measure, which was referred to committee and has not yet been scheduled for a full council vote, on the following page.