Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bratton held a brief press conference today to address the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died while being arrested for selling illegal cigarettes yesterday afternoon. The arrest was documented in a disturbing video by a bystander, and now the de Blasio administration is launching an investigation into the NYPD's handling of the incident.
"This is a terrible tragedy no family should have to experience," de Blasio told reporters. "Like so many New Yorkers I was very troubled by the video." However, the mayor cautioned that, in his opinion, "it is too early to jump to any conclusions about this case. We must wait for all the facts and details about the incident to emerge. I assure all New Yorkers there will be a full and thorough investigation."
De Blasio reiterated that he and Commissioner Bratton are "deeply committed to strengthening the relationship between community and police in NYC in all our neighborhoods." Bratton told reporters that police have received numerous complaints about the Staten Island location, which is across from a small park, regarding quality of life violations. According to the NYPD, officers were called to the location yesterday by a local merchant because Garner was selling illegal cigarettes outside on the sidewalk.
Bratton was asked if the police response was appropriate, and said, "This issue of the sale of individual cigarettes, while seemingly a small, innocuous matter to most people, quite obviously to the shop-owners in this area, who lost sales because of this activity, it was a concern to them, because they called the police to do something about this law. A seemingly minor quality of life offense if you will, but it is one the NYPD is asked to address every day."
Asked if officers used a chokehold during the arrest, Bratton said that "this would appear to have been a chokehold as defined in the department's patrol guide. But the investigation will seek to confirm that." Chokeholds are explicitly prohibited in the NYPD Patrol Guide. But Bratton said, "We do not view this as a widespread problem. This is my first exposure to it in my six months [as Commissioner]."
Bratton has instructed his deputy commissioner of training "to review all of our policies" and to move forward, "if necessary" with a retraining "if appropriate" of the department's policy on chokeholds. "If we have to go back and retrain people, we're willing to do that," de Blasio added. "That said, we can't pass ultimate judgment based on one video. We need a thorough investigation."
Two of the officers involved in the arrest, an eight-year veteran and a four-year veteran, have been assigned to desk duty pending the outcome of the investigation.
Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy group calling for NYPD reform, issued a statement calling Garner's death "another example of unnecessary police encounters resulting from broken windows-style policing that targets New Yorkers of color - in this case escalating with fatal consequences. Sadly, Mr. Garner is one of too many New Yorkers of color who have unjustly had their lives cut short by police officers over the past decades. It is even more troubling that this incident, where a chokehold - which is against the NYPD's own use of force policy - was used, comes nearly 20 years after Anthony Baez was killed by a NYPD officer’s use of an illegal chokehold."
Bratton was NYPD Commissioner in 1994 when an NYPD officer killed Baez with an illegal choke hold during an argument sparked by Baez’s football hitting a cop car. The officer, Francis X. Livoti, was acquitted of criminally negligent homicide, but in 1998 he was convicted of violating Mr. Baez's civil rights and sentenced to seven years in federal prison.