NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Bill Bratton returned in January for a second stint as New York City’s police commissioner, he often invoked two priorities - to mend relations with black and Latino citizens and to keep serious crime down with the same methods he used in the 1990s.
Just months into the job, those two missions appear to have clashed violently in the death of Eric Garner outside a Staten Island beauty parlor last Thursday after police placed him in a chokehold. The events have been watched by thousands on two videos taken at the scene and circulated widely online.
Bratton promised to reform relations between police and citizens, particularly the black and Hispanic young men who were stopped and frisked in the street in disproportionately large numbers, a practice that a federal judge ruled was unconstitutional last August.
And, in a reprise of a tactic he believes served the city well in the 1990s, he wanted his officers to not overlook low-level offenses and “quality of life” crimes, believing that what is often referred to as “broken windows” policing in turn kept more serious crimes in check.
But critics of New York police tactics say that the arrest and death of Garner, 43, have exposed a tension between those two missions that needs to be resolved.
Garner, who was black and previously worked in gardening and maintenance for the city’s parks department, was suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes, a relatively minor misdemeanor.
“The concern we have is that Eric Garner is a casualty of the ‘broken windows’ policing practices that are repeatedly reaffirmed as a cornerstone of policing policy in this administration,” Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said. “That’s troubling.”
Although the city posts weekly summaries of arrests for murders and other serious felonies, data for minor misdemeanors was not immediately available.
In the videos recorded by bystanders, Garner - who weighed 350 lbs and suffered from asthma and sleep apnea - can be seen arguing with a small group of police officers trying to arrest him. Then comes the chokehold, a forbidden maneuver in the city’s police department since 1993. Garner ends up on the ground, struggling against the officer’s grip. He repeatedly says he cannot breathe, his voice sounding panicked. He goes limp.
There is no evidence he received any medical intervention beyond a check of his pulse before he is hefted onto a stretcher at least seven minutes after he lost consciousness. He is soon declared dead. Police say his heart stopped beating in the ambulance. The city’s medical examiner has not yet ruled on the cause of his death.
New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, was elected last November in part because voters liked his staunch criticism of stop-and-frisk policing. The tactic had been used widely by the police when Ray Kelly ran the force during the administration of Michael Bloomberg, the previous mayor.
De Blasio said the tactic had divided the city. His administration would drop Bloomberg’s appeal of the federal ruling that the police department’s practices had been in breach of the U.S. Constitution and accept a federal monitor’s oversight.
He also hired Bratton, who has also done stints leading the police departments in Los Angeles and Boston, to help mend the breach.
Bratton, a media-friendly 66-year-old who still speaks with a Boston accent, received acclaim for some of the innovations he introduced in New York when he was police chief from 1994 to 1996 at a time when the crime rate was dramatically higher. They included the CompStat computerized crime-tracking system that allowed officers to anticipate hot spots.
Civil rights groups and local leaders, among others, say they will be watching the city’s response to see whether the mayor and police commissioner really mean what they promised, and whether Bratton’s two priorities are compatible.
“While we’re delighted that stop-and-frisk numbers appear to continue to be down,” Lieberman said, “we hope that ‘broken windows’ policing does not replace stop and frisk as an overused and alienating policing practices that is more hurtful than helpful.”
Bratton has said he wants officers to go after graffiti writers and the squads of young men who dance acrobatically through the city’s subway trains before asking for money. Lieberman and others worry that if more offenses prompt arrests - rather than warnings or issuing of on-the-spot fines - there will be more chances of incidents that inflame relations with the community.
“The fundamental problem is that the police are trained to see non-compliance as escalation,” said Vince Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “It can turn into a potentially very deadly interaction very quickly.”
Still, even some of the fiercest critics of the Bloomberg administration’s police tactics, including Lieberman and Warren, have tentatively welcomed the response so far by de Blasio - who called Garner’s death “a tragedy” - and Bratton.
The police department’s internal affairs bureau and the Staten Island district attorney are investigating Garner’s death. Bratton has placed two of the officers on desk duty while their role is investigated, a move that was excoriated as a “political” knee-jerk reaction by the officers’ union. Four emergency response workers who went to the scene were removed from emergency call duty by the fire department and have been suspended without pay by their hospital.
The city’s Civilian Complaints Review Board has said it will do a comprehensive study of the use of forbidden chokeholds by police officers, saying it had received more than a thousand chokehold complaints between 2009 and 2013, although only nine of those could be substantiated.
Jumaane Williams, a Democratic city council member representing parts of Brooklyn, who often clashed with Bloomberg on policing issues, said he sensed a shift in tone with de Blasio and Bratton.
“We’re on day four and I think they’re showing that they’re taking this seriously,” he said in an interview on Monday. But, he added, “how this is addressed moving forward will show us whether there’s actually a change in this administration. If there’s not criminal indictments, we have not reached the bar yet of what needs to happen.”
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Martin Howell