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Report: NYPD officers rarely punished for chokeholds

The NYPD inspector general released a report Monday which found some officers made aggressive use of "strictly prohibited" chokeholds and weren't punished.

In the more than two decades since the New York Police Department banned its officers from using chokeholds, a report released by the department’s inspector general reveals just how inconsistent the NYPD has been in determining how and when an officer is punished for using the prohibited maneuver.

The report, released on Monday by Inspector General Philip Eure, reviews 10 cases in which officers used a chokehold between 2009 and 2014 and finds that while the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) substantiated each of those claims and recommended disciplining the officers involved, most of those officers were simply instructed on department policy and never disciplined.

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In nine of the 10 cases, the CCRB, the NYPD’s civilian oversight board, recommended the most serious punishment for those officers, which could include suspension or termination. Yet, the police department’s unit that handles prosecuting all substantiated use-of-force cases and dealt with seven of those 10 cases opted to hand down administrative charges in six of them. Not a single substantiated case of police chokeholds went to trial in front of the NYPD Trial Commissioner.

In all six cases where there were administrative charges, the Police Commissioner rejected the recommended punishment by the CCRB, and instead issued much less severe penalties or no penalties at all. Though chokeholds are not illegal, the NYPD banned the maneuver in 1993.

“These are pretty serious cases,” Eure told The New York Times. “Obviously, we are going to be looking at a broader sample of cases to see if it’s more systemic. But people should be troubled by the disconnect that we determined exists already in the disciplinary process.”

The report comes on the heels of the chokehold death of Eric Garner by an NYPD officer on Staten Island in August and the decision by a grand jury in December not to indict the officer who killed him, Daniel Pantaleo.

The non-indictment of Officer Pantaleo sparked widespread protest and fed a much larger national movement against the killings of unarmed black men by police that included Garner, Michael Brown in Missouri and a string of other recent, similar cases across the country.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, has been an outspoken critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration and has questioned attempts to put NYPD policies under scrutiny by protesters and critics who say the department has unfairly targeted minorities and not been held accountable for various abuses. On Monday, Lynch took umbrage with the inspector general's report, calling it an example of "anti-police bias."

"As the Inspector General's report itself indicates, no systemic conclusions can be drawn from a review of ten isolated cases drawn from the thousands of unsworn complaints lodged against police officers every year,” Lynch said in a statement. “If anything, the report reveals the dysfunction and anti-police bias that is rampant in the investigations conducted by the CCRB.”

Lynch said that one of the 10 cases included in the report was particularly disturbing, “a case in which the CCRB's board members substantiated a complaint despite the complainant's statement that the subject officer was not the one responsible.”

“As the report notes, the CCRB consistently reaches its conclusions without reference to the circumstances surrounding an allegation,” Lynch said. “The cases detailed in the report illustrate the importance of this context in understanding what occurs during fluid and often dangerous street encounters. We welcome any training that will help police officers protect themselves and the public in these situations."

The inspector general’s report, the first released by Eure since being appointed by the city council last March, concluded that not only have police leaders routinely rejected the CCRB’s recommended punishments for officers who used the banned maneuver, but that they did so without explanation. The review of chokehold cases by the inspector general also “raises questions regarding the effectiveness of training and communication skills and de-escalation tactics,” according to the report.

In several of the cases, the officers involved jumped almost immediately to a chokehold “as a first act of physical force in response to verbal resistance.”

Monday’s report is based on a relatively small sampling of chokehold cases. Per the report, the office of the inspector general will take a much broader, statistically-significant look at the universe of case files related to chokeholds in the coming months to “determine whether these are systemic or widespread problems.”

Priscilla Gonzalez, organizing director of Communities United for Police Reform, applauded the report as a solid step in addressing a critical issue of police behavior and accountability.

“This report shines a bright light on issues that community members and advocates have long known,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “There are serious problems that need to be addressed, including lack of meaningful and timely discipline for officers who engage in forms of excessive and deadly force.”

The prohibition of dangerous police practices are meaningless if officers aren’t held accountable for using them, she said.

“This report sounds the alarm bell for greater disciplinary reform and accountability at the NYPD,” Gonzalez said. “Until officers face real consequences for the use of excessive and deadly force, officers won’t change their behavior, and will be allowed to operate above the law.”