Eric Garner’s death on July 17, 2014 triggered a local debate about policing tactics and helped usher in a national discussion of race and policing. The parameters of those conversations—and their lack of resolution a year later—were foreshadowed when Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton met with reporters the day after the fatal encounter near Tompkinsville Park:
Mayor Bill de Blasio: Joined by Commissioner Bratton, Deputy Commissioner Ben Tucker, Chief Robert Boyce, who is Acting Chief of Department, and Corporation Counsel Zach Carter. I join you today with a heavy heart. On behalf of all New Yorkers I want to offer my deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Eric Garner. He was a loving husband and a caring father and grandfather. This is a terrible tragedy that occurred yesterday. A terrible tragedy that no family should have to experience. And our thoughts and prayers go out to Eric’s family and his friends.
Like so many New Yorkers I was very troubled by the video I reviewed earlier today. I have instructed Commissioner Bratton to ensure that there will be a full and thorough investigation of this incident. We at City Hall will be working closely with Commissioner Bratton, with Richmond County DA Dan Donovan, with elected officials and community leaders—in fact we have been in constant conversation with elected officials, community leaders and clergy throughout the day. I want to note something that is true every day in New York City —the men and women of the NYPD are handed an enormous responsibility. The responsibility of keeping us safe, but also the responsibility of making very difficult, split-second decisions in trying circumstances. It is too early to jump to any conclusions about this case —we must wait for all the facts and details of the incident to emerge. But I assure all New Yorkers, there will be a full and thorough investigation. Commissioner Bratton and I are deeply committed to strengthening the relationship between community and police in New York City in all of our neighborhoods. As Commissioner Bratton has said repeatedly: our police must be compassionate, constitutional and respectful in all we do. The NYPD is the most effective police force in this nation and is at its best and at its most effective when it has the support and respect of those that it protects. That is what we are working for every day. In light of yesterday’s events, now more than ever we must come together as New Yorkers. As we search for answers and come to terms with this tragedy, let us keep Eric Garner and his family in our hearts. With that, let me call upon Commissioner Bratton.
Commissioner Bill Bratton, NYPD: Good afternoon. On Thursday July 17th, two New York City police officers assigned to the 120th precinct on Staten Island and assigned to the Plainclothes Anti-Crime Unit, were directed by a superior officer to address specific conditions in the vicinity of Tompkinsville Park near the intersection of Victory Boulevard and Bay Street in Staten Island. It’s a little triangular park in a very small commercial area almost directly across from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. The immediate area had been the subject of numerous community complaints by local residents and merchants. Year to date at that location there have been 98 arrests for various offenses, 100 cease summonses issued mostly for quality of life offenses, as well as 646 nine-eleven calls for service within the immediate area of that very small park.
At approximately 3:30 pm the officers approached a 43 year old male, later identified as Eric Garner, of 50 Vaughn Street, Staten Island, concerning the sale of illegal cigarettes in front of 202 Bay Street, Staten Island, directly across from the park. In attempting to take Mr. Garner into custody, there was a physical struggle during which Mr. Garner repeatedly complained of difficulty breathing as the officers wrestled him to the ground. An ambulance was immediately called to the scene and Mr. Garner was transported by EMS to Richmond University Medical Center. He went into cardiac arrest, if I understand, while he was in the vehicle. He was pronounced dead approximately one hour later at the hospital.
The medical examiner will rule on the cause of death. The Richmond County District Attorney’s office is leading the investigation —the criminal investigation —into this matter, assisted by the New York City Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau. And this morning I had the opportunity to go to Staten Island, visited the location of the incident. Met at length with the District Attorney and his staff. I also met with the commanding officer of the Staten Island borough police division, Ed Delatorre. I met with the City Council member who represents that area, Debi Rose, as well as James Oddo, the borough president. I also had conversations with the inspector general —or the newly named inspector general —for the City of New York to brief him on the circumstances of the case. So those are in fact the circumstances as we now know them. As the mayor has indicated, he has directed that there be a full, thorough, transparent investigation and myself and the district attorney are in fact committed to doing just that.
Mayor: Thank you. I’m going to take questions just on this topic.
Question: Commissioner, has the dropped status of the officers involved been changed at all, modified, or suspended, and could you tell us about their work history?
Commissioner Bratton: The two officers who were engaged in the arrest of the deceased, one is an 8-year veteran, the other is a 4-year veteran. Both officers have been assigned to desk duty pending the investigation going forward, and until its conclusion.
Question: Commissioner, why do chokeholds remain a persistent problem 20 years after you [inaudible]?
Commissioner Bratton: The issue of chokeholds has been one that the Department began to address back as early as the 1980s, and over years has refined its policies and procedures relative to it. As recently as last year, when another order was issued to the effect that chokeholds are in fact prohibited by the NYPD, as they are, in fact, by most police departments in the United States, because of the concerns of potential death arising from them. So I have instructed, and you see with us Deputy Commissioner of Training Ben Tucker, to review the video but also to review all of our policies and to move forward, if necessary, with a reminder, retraining if appropriate, but at the minimum a reminder of the department’s policies as it relates to the use of a chokehold which is in fact prohibited by the department.
Question: Do you view their usage as still a widespread problem?
Commissioner Bratton: We do not. No. This is my first exposure to it in the six months I’ve been Police Commissioner and my seven years at the Los Angeles Police Department, which was a frequent user of that policy prior to 2002, that it was a relatively infrequent occurrence.
Question: Was this a chokehold, Commissioner Bratton? You’ve seen the video, I assume.
Commissioner Bratton: Yes, as defined in the department’s patrol guide, this would appear to have been a chokehold. But the investigation, both by the District Attorney’s office as well as by our Internal Affairs, will seek to make that final determination as part of our investigation. For purposes of the department, it would be an issue of if it’s a violation of our policies and procedures. As to whether in any way shape or form a violation of law, that would be a determination of the District Attorney’s criminal investigation.
Question: Selling cigarettes is not a violent crime or anything, yet pretty strong reaction from the officers, the back and forth according to the video, I wanted to get your thoughts on that aspect. And to the Mayor, a lot of people were looking to you to reform the NYPD, to change things, and what would you say to them today?
Commissioner Bratton: The issue of the sale of individual cigarettes, “loosies” as they’re called, which is apparently the action that the officers were asked to address at this location, while seemingly a small, maybe innocuous matter to most people, that quite obviously to the shop owners in that area who lost sales of cigarettes that in fact has tax stamps to this illegal type of activity, it was a concern to them, because they repeatedly called to ask the police to do something about this violation of the law. And it was for that reason that the officers were in fact directed to that location. So again, a seemingly minor quality of life offense, if you will, but it’s one that the New York City Police Department is asked to address every day, because in fact it is complained about, it is the subject of 911 calls, and it is of concern to the quality of life as well as the business vitality in some of these neighborhoods.
Mayor: To the other part of your question, Commissioner Bratton and I are moving very consistently and energetically to create a series of reforms. And I think we can say, having spoken to community leaders all over the city, that the effect of those reforms is being felt on the ground. This incident was a tragedy. There will be a very thorough investigation. But if you look at what’s happening all over the city, I think we can safely say that real progress is being made, that the relationship between police and community is starting to heal and improve. And it’s something we are committed to for the long haul. Marcia?
Question: Mayor, [inaudible] you could tell me what your thoughts were after you saw the video? And Commissioner, if you could also tell me what your thoughts were [inaudible]?
Mayor: It was very troubling. I watched it the same way a family member would watch it, and it was very sad to watch. But that being said, we can’t pass ultimate judgment based on one video. We need the facts of a full and detailed investigation.
Commissioner Bratton: I think we all, all of us, unequivocally understand that this was a tragedy. The loss of a life is always a tragedy – a tragedy for all involved. Certainly, Mr. Garner, his family, community, for the members of the New York City Police Department. Nobody began the day with the expectation it would end as it did. And so it is a tragedy that needs to be addressed, it needs to be thoroughly investigated, reviewed, and questions answered, and that is what we’re committed to doing.
Question: [inaudible] still looking at the video, it’s still under investigation. But circling back to what this initial call was about – the sale of illegal cigarettes. Would such a crime – alleged crime – warrant such an aggressive physical response?
Mayor: I’ll start and pass it to the Commissioner. Look, if police officers are asked to enforce the law because there’s a community concern, we require that – we expect that of them. We wouldn’t want a situation where community members call with a concern and the police did not respond. The question of how you respond is a different matter. And I have real confidence that there’s going to be, again, a very full and thorough investigation. I also have confidence – and I think the way the Commissioner framed it is exactly right – that if we have to go back and retrain people in what’s appropriate, we’re ready to do that, to make sure that members of the police force of course do enforce the law regularly and consistently, but do it in the right way.
Commissioner Bratton: Part of our investigation will be – despite the video that appears to show all that occurred – to understand all the circumstances surrounding it. The video made it quite apparent that the officers made it known to the deceased that they were intending to arrest him. He made it quite known to them that he was not going to allow that arrest to occur. I do not expect my officers to walk away from that type of situation. So in terms of our investigation going forward, it will be, as the mayor indicated, to determine were all the actions appropriate that led to this unfortunate circumstance and tragedy. But let’s be quite clear that one of the things the video appears to show is that the officers were in fact in the performance of their lawful duties. They were there for that purpose, and in the course of that event, that they met resistance. Now the investigation will determine – was the actions that they took appropriate to the resistance that they were experiencing. Thank you.
Mayor: Thank you everyone.