5 Dec 2014

‘I can’t breathe’: chokeholds according to the NYPD

In July, Eric Garner died after being held in a chokehold by an NYPD officer. The grand jury’s decision not to charge him sparked nationwide protests in the US. Were the officers following guidance?

Video from Time magazine. Warning: Contains distressing images.

“I can’t breathe” were the final words of Eric Garner before he died on a New York pavement where he had been wrestled to the ground after being restrained by a team of NYPD officers in July.

His words were a complaint, and a final attempt to try and save his life; they have now become a rallying cry for thousands of protesters demonstrating across America against a decision by the Grand Jury this week that the officer involved, Daniel Pantaleo, should not be indicted.

Although not illegal, Patrol Guidance issued to the NYPD forbids the use of chokeholds, with the rules stating that officers should not restrict breathing.

Channel 4 News examines the scenes that day and compares it with the guidance issued to the NYPD.


The actions of the police were captured in graphic detail on a camera phone by Garner’s friend, Ramsey Orta. The pair had been talking about where to eat dinner, eventually deciding on Buffalo Wild Wings, although they would never end up going.

At issue is the use of the “chokehold” manoeuvre. Whether or not it had in fact been a “chokehold” may have been up for debate, but the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death was a homicide, which “was caused by compression of his chest and a chokehold applied as he was being subdued”.


The encounter between Garner, a 43-year-old father-of-six, and police patrolling the 120th Precinct, in Staten Island, began after Garner said he had been trying to break up a fight between other people.

Speaking to Time magazine, Mr Orta said that the officers came and “let the two guys fighting walk off”, and turned their attention towards Garner.

The officers accused him of selling untaxed single cigarettes, which he denied.

Garner, who was unarmed, did not attempt to attack the officers or flee. He argued with the officers. “I’m just standing here, I didn’t do nothing!” Garner shouted. “I didn’t sell anything.”


Shortly afterwards, “the sirens were heard”, as Mr Orta put it; assistance had been called for.

At this point, Garner and the officers are still arguing. “How can you say you seen my selling cigarettes and all I did was just break up a fight,” Garner said.

As the officers approached the street, Pantaleo began hooking his left arm around Garner’s neck.

“Well, when he [Pantaleo] grabbed him by his neck, he pulled back to try to bring him to the ground,” Mr Orta said.

Pantaleo pulled Garner towards the ground, still with his arm around his neck, with another officer helping to pull his head down.

No chokeholds

The entire episode thus far, according to the NYPD Patrol Guide, should not have happened.

This is what Procedure No 203-11 of the guide, the latest issued in January last year, says: “Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT use chokeholds.”

The word “not” is spelt out in capital letters in the guide, and underlined.

The guidance goes on to state: “A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to, any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.”

This makes clear that physical actions of an officer should not be intended to restrict breathing, and that physical force should not be applied to the neck area.

Ability to breathe

By the time the officers had arrived, Garner was on the ground. “All that time, the guy was still around his neck,” Mr Orta added.

As Pantaleo continued holding his head down, Garner’s muffled voice could be heard: “I can’t breathe.” He repeated those three words in the following few seconds, a number of times.

This is what the NYPD Patrol Guidance says: “Whenever it becomes necessary to take a violent or resisting subject into custody, responding officers should utilise appropriate tactics in a coordinated effort to overcome resistance.”


Soon afterwards, officers are in a melee, but appear to be holding him down while they are handcuffing him from behind. It is not clear from the video how many officers were involved, or exactly what they were doing, but the medical officer said that “compression” of his chest led to his death.

Mr Orta said: “Then he [Pantaleo] got up, pushed his face into the floor twice and then put his knee on top of his face while Eric was telling him he couldn’t breathe.”

The NYPD Patrol Guide says: “Whenever possible, members should make every effort to avoid tactics, such as sitting or standing on a subject’s chest, which may result in chest compression, thereby reducing the subject’s ability to breathe.”

The guidance continues: “After an individual has been controlled and placed under custodial restraint using handcuffs and other authorised methods, the person should be positioned so as to promote free breathing. The subject should not be maintained or transported in a face down position.”


After several seconds more, the officers did indeed place Garner on his side, which would have enabled him to breathe.

This is what Mr Orta said was happening to his friend at this point: “I could see his eyes roll back and he was foaming from the mouth. I knew he was gone from then.”

By this time, someone on the video is heard calling for an ambulance.

The NYPD Patrol Guide says: “If a person appears to be having difficulty breathing or is otherwise demonstrating life-threatening symptoms, medical assistance will be requested immediately.” [emphasis in original]

So the officers should have requested assistance once Garner said he couldn’t breathe, and then when they saw him “foaming at the mouth”.

Chokeholds, facts and figures:

July 2012 to July 2013 saw a record number of complaints against chokeholds to the NYPD.
Officers who received complaints about chokeholds were more likely to have misconduct complaints against them then officers in general.
From 1998 to 2002, the Civilian Complaint Review Board substantiated 12 chokehold allegations. Departmental charges were pursued in all but one case; five officers were found guilty, six not guilty.
From 2009 to March 2013, the NYPD "stops taking cases to trial in chokehold incidents". During this time, of seven chokehold cases submitted by the Board, the NYPD did not serve charges in a single case.
"None of the more than one thousand officers the CCRB investigated faced criminal charges for a chokehold claim," the Board said.
Source - A Mutated Rule: Lack of Enforcement in the Face of Persistent Chokehold Complaints in New York City.