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Brooklyn congressman drafts bill making police chokeholds a crime

April 27, 2015 Associated Press
U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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A New York congressman, citing last year’s videotaped death of Eric Garner in a police chokehold, announced Monday that he’s sponsoring a bill that would make the maneuver a federal crime.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said at a news conference outside New York Police Department headquarters that the legislation would amend civil rights laws that deal with excessive force by defining chokeholds as a depravation of rights under the color of law. The Brooklyn Democrat was joined by Garner’s mother.

“The chokehold is the classic example of an unnecessary violent police tactic,” Jeffries said. “It is an unreasonable measure, it is an uncivilized measure … and this bill will make it an unlawful measure.”

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Chokeholds have been widely discouraged or banned by large police departments around the country, including the NYPD. But police critics argue that Garner’s death — along with a city inspector general report saying that there were other instances where officers used them “as a first act of physical force” — show there’s a need for more safeguards.

“It’s clear department policy is not sufficient and that’s why we are introducing this legislation,” Jeffries said.

Officer Daniel Pantaleo and other NYPD officers stopped Garner on a Staten Island block in July on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A video shot by an onlooker and widely watched on the Internet shows the 43-year-old Garner telling the officers to leave him alone and refusing to be handcuffed.

Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck in an apparent chokehold. The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, is heard gasping, “I can’t breathe.” He later was pronounced dead at a hospital.

The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. But late last year, a Staten Island grand jury declined to bring charges against Pantaleo, who claimed he had used a takedown move taught by the police department — not a chokehold — and never meant to harm Garner.

Garner’s death was one of several recent killings of black men or boys by white police officers across the nation. The killings have spurred sometimes violent demonstrations.

Federal prosecutors are still reviewing the Garner episode to determine if there were civil rights violations under existing laws. The victim’s mother, Gwen Garner, said Monday that the new legislation would bring a measure of justice.

“Why should any human being be choked to death, especially when he is unarmed and not committing a crime?” she said.

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