Watchdog group: NYPD chokehold complaints rising

AP News
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Posted: Oct 07, 2014 10:35 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Complaints about city police officers using banned chokeholds are rising, and discipline has been lacking, a watchdog group says in a study that comes after an unarmed man's death raised concern about police chokeholds.

Although the New York Police Department has prohibited chokeholds — defined to include "any pressure" that is applied to the throat or windpipe or that may hinder breathing — for more than 20 years, the Civilian Complaint Review Board says it fielded 219 chokehold complaints from July 2013 through June 2014, the most since 2009.

The board has recommended disciplinary charges, which can lead to dismissal, in the relatively few cases it substantiated. But the NYPD, which doesn't have to follow the board's suggestions, has rarely pursued such charges since 2009, though it more often imposed lesser penalties such as a loss of vacation days, according to the study.

"This crystal-clear prohibition has been degraded over the course of the last decade," the report says, calling for renewed, uniform enforcement.

Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio noted in a statement that officers are already set to be retrained on using force. But de Blasio — who emphasized police reform as a candidate last year and has had a fraught relationship with police unions — said the report "makes clear the need for the NYPD to reevaluate its disciplinary proceedings in an effort to better enforce the chokehold prohibition and hold officers accountable."

The head of the city's biggest police union, Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch, blasted the study as "totally meaningless" and "based on unsworn, unsubstantiated and poorly investigated complaints that were filed by criminals."

The civilian board has received 1,128 allegations of police chokehold use from January 2009 through this June. Another 156 complaints weren't categorized as chokeholds but should have been, the report said.

The board said it substantiated 10 chokehold cases and recommended disciplinary charges in all. The police department has brought such charges in one case, imposed lesser punishment in four and declined to pursue two others; three other cases are ongoing, the report said.

The report came as the family of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a police chokehold in July, filed a notice that marks a legal first step toward suing the city and six officers for $75 million. The city's Law Department said it would review the claim thoroughly.

One of Garner's lawyers, Scott Rynecki, called the board's study a sign that police training has been problematic.

"It would indicate these aren't just isolated incidents," he said.

Meanwhile, a grand jury is weighing whether there will be any criminal charges in Garner's death.

As police tried to arrest Garner on charges of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, he became angry, and an officer put him in a chokehold. Garner pleaded "I can't breathe!" as he was forced to the ground, a bystander's video showed. Medical examiners found the chokehold contributed to his death.

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Associated Press writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.