Scrutiny Over NYPD Tactics After Chokehold Death of Unarmed Man

New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton announced Wednesday that every member of the department will undergo mandatory retraining on the use of force after the death of Eric Garner, a Long Island man who died in police custody after being put into a chokehold—a move that has been banned since 1993.

Garner’s death prompted public outrage when a viral video showed officers using a chokehold to arrest Garner for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, an example of the kind of petty crime targeted by the NYPD’s highly criticized “broken windows” approach to policing.

Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, was asthmatic; in a video recording of the confrontation, he gasps, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” at least eight times as he is dragged to the ground and restrained.

The Staten Island District Attorney’s Office has launched a criminal investigation into Garner’s death. Two NYPD officers were suspended after the incident, including Daniel Pantaleo, who initiated the assault, as well as four EMTs who failed to give Garner proper medical assistance.

Pantaleo has a history of allegedly abusing his power; he has been sued twice for civil rights violations in the past two years.

Garner’s death exemplifies a consequence of the broken windows policy. The tactic operates under the idea that targeting petty and minor infractions, such as loitering, trespassing, or in this case, allegedly peddling loose cigarettes on the street, helps reduce and prevent more serious crimes like assault and murder. Bratton has cited it as the cause of a drastic reduction in crime during the 90s, when he previously served as police commissioner. In a disturbing parallel to Garner’s case, Bratton’s first tour also saw the death of Anthony Baez, an asthmatic black man, who was killed when an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold.

“Why does the NYPD see fit to throw someone in a chokehold over 50 cent cigarettes?”
—Jose Trujillo, New Yorkers Against BrattonCritics of the policy have said it has not significantly helped in reducing the crime rate in New York and other big cities, and that it perpetuates widespread racial discrimination and increases risk of police brutality in otherwise nonviolent encounters. As Columbia law professor Patricia J. Williams wrote for The Nation, “New Yorkers have lived in the shadow of broken windows policing for two decades, during which time the policy has intimidated, dispossessed and humiliated millions of innocent people,” also noting that it led to the implementation of New York’s infamous and unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policy. A 2006 study by the University of Chicago found that there was “no support… for the proposition that broken windows policing is the optimal use of scarce law enforcement resources.”

During a rally on Monday, Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale called it an example of over-policing and racial profiling. “There is very little support for the idea that broken windows policing in and of itself is responsible for the crime drop,” Vitale said. “[It] over-polices communities of color and criminalizes young black and Latino men in particular.”

Jose Trujillo, a leader of the activist group New Yorkers Against Bratton, spoke at the rally as well, asking, “Why does the NYPD see fit to throw someone in a chokehold over 50 cent cigarettes?”