Thursday, October 22, 2020

RETREATING FROM POLICE REFORM IN NYC: NYC City Council pressured to weaken new anti-chokehold law

Words by Charles Brooks 

Photo credit: NYC Mayor's Office
Just three months ago, New York City finally  passed a law criminalizing the chokehold practice  ensuring a level of police accountability unseen before the recent wave of public uprising. New York City Council Member Rory Lancman, introduced the measure after Eric Garner’s chokehold death in 2014. The fact that it took six years to pass the anti-chokehold law should give you some indication of the level of opposition to the new law waged by the mayor, New York Police Department (NYPD) and their union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Union (PBA). Right now, legislative efforts are underway to weaken, undermine and outright repeal the new law. 

For one, there’s a lawsuit filed by 18 police unions arguing the new law is “invalid and unenforceable” and violates the New York’s State Constitution. Just to give you an idea of the scope of police opposition – the lawsuit includes unions representing officers from NYPD, Port Authority, Tunnels and Bridges, along with the officers from the court system. In addition to the lawsuit, New York City Council Public Safety Committee chairman, Donavan Richards has already introduced amendments to revise key language in the law while there’s another proposal to outright repeal the newly signed law. 

These latest attempts to revoke this measure of police accountability have been framed around a work slowdown by NYPD officers who contend the new law compromises their safety. Unable to withstand the pressure from the New York Police Department, City Council Public Safety Committee chairman Donavan Richards relented by introducing an amendment

The bill would amend Local Law 66 of 2020 to provide that restraining an individual in a manner that restricts the flow of air or blood by sitting, kneeling, or standing on the chest or back in a manner that compresses the diaphragm is a misdemeanor under such law if the restraint is performed recklessly and causes injury due to asphyxiation . 

With this new language, the new law becomes remarkedly weaker where proving “recklessly” becomes immensely more subjective to prove as the officers’ intent comes into play. Bear in mind “recklessly” is the same language that created the loophole allowing the Department of Justice to not file federal civil rights charges against former NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for using the chokehold resulting in Garner’s death. Although, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the bill into law in July, he not only supports the proposed changes but along with the NYPD has always maintained a position that the chokehold ban was sufficient

However, chokehold complaint data shows quite a different story. The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) investigates public complaints on police misconduct in New York City. According to the CCRB, there were over 3,000 complaints over a 20-year period from 2001 to 2000 – nearly 1,000 since Garner’s death in 2014. And yet despite the data to substantiate the chokehold ban’s ineffectiveness, opposition by the mayor and the New York Police Department not only persisted but hardened. We witnessed their opposition when, not even in the wake of Garner’s chokehold death, could a law be passed to criminalize the chokehold practice. 

Photo credit: December 12th Movement
For years, community relations with NYPD has been characterized by protest demonstrations and public demands for police accountability. Accordingly, attempts to undermine the new anti-chokehold law has been met with a number of protest demonstrations led by the December 12th Movement. They’ve initiated a public campaign to not only mobilize black communities in and around New York City but to inform them as well. So far, several street demonstrations targeted the offices of the Council Public Safety Committee members; I. Daneek Miller, and Adrienne Adams, who also happen to serve as co-chairs of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus along with the committee Chairman Donavan Richards. In addition, they held a nearly two-hour ZOOM webinar where invited panelists discussed the chokehold issue from a number of different perspectives. 

Viola Plummer, the December 12th chair moderated this important virtual discussion with panelists: NYC Council Member Inez Barron, Attorney King Downing, former NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, Dr. Susan Williams of the Freedom Socialist Party, Father Frank Morales of the All Souls Episcopal Church, New York State Senator Elect Jabari Brisport, Hawk Newsome of Black Lives Matter of Greater NY, and New York State Assemblyman Charles Barron. They spoke of the historical context and background, the amendment – the proposed change in language and its significance, the immense political pressure to change the law, the scale of police intimidation and subsequent trauma experienced by those living in the community. 

By now, we’ve seen one chokehold incident after another and not just in New York City. We’ve seen the data on chokehold complaints revealing the inadequacy and failure of the 1993 chokehold ban. We’ve seen the evidence of trauma again and again in communities and neighborhoods when black folk fall victim to the chokehold or any other form of police brutality. We’ve also seen police officers acquitted. We should also see that opposition and resistance to the anti-chokehold law is essentially an endorsement for maintaining a police culture rooted in their impunity to wage a campaign of unabated intimidation.

Additional Reading and resources:

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