Mayor Bill de Blasio touted a new disciplinary regime for police Thursday — promising to fire NYPD cops who use chokeholds after THE CITY and ProPublica highlighted minimal consequences for officers employing the banned maneuver.
“This is a sea change because it says: Here are the offenses, here are the penalties,” de Blasio said at his daily news conference, holding up a booklet of the NYPD’s new “matrix” for decision-making on discipline for conduct infractions, including improper force against civilians.
The new guidelines, finalized last Friday, were required by a law the City Council passed last year requiring the NYPD to create and follow specified consequences for officer infractions — but also allow its commissioner to depart from the new rules with a public explanation.
“You go to Page 23, here’s chokeholds, and here is the penalty,” de Blasio said, pointing to the square on the page. “Termination. It’s just abundantly clear.”
Chokeholds were already prohibited in the police patrol guide when Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in one in July 2014 on a Staten Island sidewalk, killing the 43-year-old father. The incident — including Garner’s cries of “I can’t breathe” — was captured on video, spurring demonstrations across the city.
Little or No Punishment
ProPublica and THE CITY found that Pantaleo was the exception in ultimately losing his job for using a chokehold. In 40 cases since Garner’s death where the city Civilian Complaint Review Board substantiated chokehold allegations, the officers found responsible were not fired. Most lost vacation days or faced no punishment at all.
The report by ProPublica and THE CITY also found NYPD cops are still being caught on camera performing chokeholds with the tacit acceptance — and sometimes, explicit approval — of department leaders.
Detective Fabio Nunez Uses a Chokehold on Tomas Medina
Videos show Nunez, who has three chokehold complaints on his record, escalating the situation after responding to loud music.
Pantaleo stayed on the force for more than five years after Garner’s death while a federal investigation was pending, even when the NYPD was free to take disciplinary action against him. He was fired in 2019 by then-Commissioner James O’Neill, who called the officer’s loss of career “a different kind of tragedy.”
“Every member of law enforcement in this country that works and keeps this country safe and this city safe looked at that and said, that could possibly be me,” O’Neill said of the video of Pantaleo and Garner at the time.
THE CITY and ProPublica revealed that former CCRB chair Richard Emery had pursued similar reforms shortly after Garner’s death, but after initial talks did not secure the NYPD’s cooperation.
Emery praised the administration for the new matrix, in particular for melding discipline for incidents involving civilians with punishment for internal workplace infractions. But he cautioned that the newly standardized discipline must come quicker.
“I absolutely believe that they fully intend with pure heart and integrity to implement this at this point,” he told THE CITY Thursday. “But as long as the delays are this long, it remains a huge problem. There has to be some overall disciplinary system which gets results within six months, and no longer — otherwise, no matter what you do, it’s going to be ineffective.”
Commissioner Can Choose
De Blasio highlighted a new memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the body that investigates complaints against cops and recommends disciplinary action after it substantiates misconduct claims.
The memo commits the CCRB to recommend disciplinary measures required in the matrix except “in extraordinary circumstances.” If a police commissioner chooses to depart from the recommended discipline, they must detail the reasons in writing and make that document “publicly available.”
The penalty for chokeholds is stronger than the NYPD’s initial proposal, contained in a draft version of the disciplinary matrix circulated last summer, to terminate officers only when a civilian is killed or seriously injured.
The Rev. Frederick Davie, chair of the CCRB, said that making firing the official go-to penalty for chokeholds “moves us a long way in ensuring the public that the use of chokeholds will become a rare occurrence in policing in New York City.”
“Harsher penalties will apply in ways that we had not previously applied them to infractions by police officers,” he said.
‘Looking for Trouble’
The report by THE CITY and ProPublica — the product of more than 50 interviews of former CCRB investigators and supervisors, former high-ranking NYPD personnel, attorneys and chokehold victims — traced the history of chokeholds, which the NYPD banned in 1993.
Reporters also examined the CCRB data obtained this summer by ProPublica and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The report spotlighted a video in which Officer Omar Habib put a resident in a chokehold on Thanksgiving 2017 for calling him and others “f—king Keystone Kops,” interviews and Internal Affairs Bureau records show
Officer Omar Habib Uses a Chokehold on Dennis Prewitt
Security camera video shows Habib attacking Prewitt after a verbal dispute in an elevator.
“These dudes came in on a bunch of brute, brute s—t … like they were looking for trouble,” said Dennis Prewitt, the man taken down by Habib and the officers with him.
Prewitt, who was punched and tased during the confrontation, wasn’t charged or arrested. It’s unclear how Habib, who is still on the force, was disciplined.
“If this was a crime that I committed out in society … I’d be sitting in the jailhouse,” Prewitt said.