ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom, and THE CITY teamed up to investigate the continued use of chokeholds even after the iconic death of Eric Garner in 2014 prompted the unmitigated ban of the maneuver. Topher Sanders and Yoav Gonen, reporters with the two organizations respectively, published an article of the findings.
The article indicated that many in authority at the NYPD seemed loath to completely ban such a useful control tactic. Moreover, police are actually ignorant of its true definition. The patrol guide defines a chokehold as “any pressure to the throat or windpipe which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” This means that a chokehold can be accomplished with one hand or two, an arm, or any other means of constricting the windpipe. But records indicate that several police only consider a two-arm wrestling-type hold a chokehold.
Policeman Fabio Nunez used a chokehold on Thomas Medina in July 2018 during an altercation over the noise level of some music. Medina filed suit against Nunez accusing him of maintaining the chokehold for over 20 seconds while tasing him several times.
In an internal investigation interview obtained by ProPublica and THE CITY, Nunez was asked about the chokehold used on Medina. He responded, “You need two arms to do a chokehold. You don’t do a chokehold with one arm – it’s impossible. If you use a chokehold on someone, they’re not able to speak at all. He was talking to me nonstop.”
University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine lung specialist Gary Weissman calls this perspective “patently false.”
“Being able to speak does not at all imply that the patient is able to sufficiently ventilate, meaning that they’re able to breathe enough oxygen, enough air down the right parts of the lungs, to sustain bodily functions,” he stated. “That’s a myth that needs to be removed and debunked.” Sufficient amounts of oxygen and blood flow must reach the brain at all times for its proper functioning.
Even NYPD authority seemed unsure of the patrol guide definition. First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker said in an online city council meeting, “The prohibition on chokeholds is firm it shall not be used. There are those times, and maybe other times, when you can use it, but it is prohibited.”
The Civil Complaint Review Board (“CCRB”) is responsible for investigating police misconduct and making a recommendation whether discipline be imposed at the precinct level or through a disciplinary trial. Sanctions at the precinct level range from verbal reprimand to 10 days’ loss of vacation time. More severe sanctions can only be administered at a disciplinary trial.
The article said although the CCRB makes disciplinary recommendation, the ultimate decision is up to NYPD administration. The problem lies in NYPD’s ambivalence to correct such actions. Since Garner’s death, 40 police officers have been brought up on disciplinary report for use of a chokehold. Of those 40, not one has been fired. Nunez’s disciplinary record contains 46 infractions, four of which are chokeholds (this last episode still under review). He has thus far cost the NYPD $200,000 in lawsuits.
The prevailing opinion of NYPD authority is that chokeholds are necessary. Many times recommended discipline is mitigated or ignored completely. Chief of Department Terrence Monahan said Nunez used necessary force to take Medina into custody.
“It’s almost impossible to take a person into custody who’s resisting without some type of bear hug, arm lock,” said NYPD chief of department from 2000 to 2013 Joe Esposito. “People who don’t do this for a living are trying to make rules for people that do it every day.”
Even the CCRB is affected by the NYPD’s reluctance to hold police accountable for this deadly maneuver. The board’s executive director, Jonathan Darche, said they had to work hand-in-hand with the NYPD in disciplinary actions and that itself dictated the level of reprimand recommended. He stated that the CCRB would lose credibility and influence if their disciplinary recommendations were “out of line with precedent.”
“It’s hard to think of a more explicit way of saying Black life doesn’t matter,” said Georgetown University Law Center professor Paul Butler. “There still is nothing approaching justice because the penalty is so light.”
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