New videos add to scrutiny of N.Y. police use of choke holds

NEW YORK Thu Jul 24, 2014 7:56pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - It is a potentially deadly maneuver that New York police have been banned from using for 21 years, but on Thursday the force confirmed it was probing what seemed to be a second case of an officer using a choke hold within a single week.

The investigation of the incident comes just days after videos emerged showing police using a choke hold on a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, as he was being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner died soon after, sparking widespread outrage.

The separate incidents, both caught on camera phones, are testing Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign promise of mending frayed relations between the police and New Yorkers who belong to minority groups. The police force banned the use of choke holds in 1993 because they can kill.

The latest case to come to light involves the arrest of a young black man who walked past a Manhattan subway station's turnstiles without paying a fare and then refused to show police his identification, according to a criminal complaint.

While trying to handcuff the suspect, identified as Ronald Johns, a police officer can be seen in the videos punching him in the head and using an arm to grip Johns around his neck during a struggle on the station floor. A second officer pulls on his leg.

"Put your hands behind your back!" one of the officers shouts, more than once, the videos show.

Officer Colin McGuire is seen in the videos punching Johns at least twice in the head as Johns tries to shield his face with his hands. Moments later, several drops of blood spatter on the subway tiles.

"You busted his nose!" an onlooker shouts.

"There ain't no need for no punching," a man says.

"Stop resisting, sweetie, so they don't hit you!" implores a woman. McGuire eventually relaxes his grip as Johns puts his hands behind his back to be cuffed.

A lawyer for Johns, who was charged with theft of services, resisting arrest and criminal trespass, did not respond to a request for comment.

The police department said its internal affairs bureau is investigating Johns' arrest. The bureau is also investigating Garner's death, alongside separate investigations by the Staten Island district attorney and the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).

The CCRB also said this week it had begun a comprehensive study of the 1,022 chokehold allegations against the police it received from 2009 to 2013.

The renewed attention to a maneuver that many New Yorkers seemed surprised to learn was still in use comes at a time when the department is trying to reform after a federal ruling that its use of "stop and frisk" was unconstitutional.

The CCRB previously investigated 462 of the choke hold complaints it received but only nine of them were substantiated. Ray Kelly, Bill Bratton's predecessor as police commissioner, punished an officer in only one of those cases, docking his vacation days. In another 206 cases, the board was unable to rule either way.

Officers in Los Angeles and Denver are also banned from using the hold. Other agencies, such as the Chicago Police Department, bar choke holds unless an officer's life is threatened.

Still, the National Law Enforcement Training Center says it has certified 500 law enforcement agencies, mostly in the United States, in what it calls "lateral vascular neck restraint."

Done right, the hold restricts blood flow to the brain but does not cut off airflow, and can save officers from using deadly weapons to restrain an unruly person, according to Michael Huth, the center's director.

(Editing by Eric Beech and Eric Walsh)

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