On behalf of the 996 victims of police chokeholds in New York City since the death of Eric Garner in 2014, all we can say to the state Legislature is: What took you so long?
Lawmakers should be commended for swiftly passing a series of reforms that will help reduce police brutality, protect target populations and introduce a degree of transparency into the secret police disciplinary process.
They’re listening to what protesters have said in response to the death of George Floyd, and they’ve responded with tangible solutions to many of the issues raised.
One of the bills they passed this week makes it a C-level felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, for police officers to use a “chokehold or similar restraint” that “causes serious physical injury or death.”
The bill (A6144/S6670B) is named for Garner, who was killed six years ago by a chokehold applied by New York City police on the streets of Staten Island as officers tried to arrest him for selling loose untaxed cigarettes.
Garner’s repeated cries of “I can’t breathe” as he lay dying on the sidewalk have echoed throughout the black community for years, as officers have continued to apply the potentially deadly restraint maneuver.
Now, in the wake of the protests six years later after another black man unsuccessfully pleaded with police for his life by crying “I can’t breathe,” state lawmakers have finally made the practice a crime.
While we’re sure future victims of this maneuver are grateful that the Legislature acted, we have to ask lawmakers why it took them this long to do something about it?
There was never any doubt the move was dangerous. The NYPD officially banned it in 1993. Yet between 2014 and 2020, the NYPD received an estimated 996 allegations of its use.
Are the police unions and their supporters so powerful that lawmakers couldn’t find the courage in the past six years to outlaw an action that had led to so many injuries and deaths? Have lawmakers been so fearful of retribution from a small contingent of law enforcement personnel that they felt their concerns about re-election overrode the rights of the millions of other citizens they represent?
How many lives could they have saved and how many senseless injures could they and other police agencies across the nation have prevented had they passed this law immediately after Garner was killed six years ago? Or after Anthony Baez was killed in the Bronx in 1994 by the same maneuver?
While lawmakers are celebrating their success in getting this bill passed, let’s not forget the victims of their failure to act sooner.