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No indictment in 1st case under NY’s police chokehold ban

September 15, 2021 Michael R. Sisak, Associated Press
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A case seen as an early test of New York’s law criminalizing police chokeholds has ended without an indictment.

A Queens grand jury on Tuesday declined charges for David Afanador, a former New York City police officer who was seen on cellphone video last year putting his arm around a man’s neck on the Rockaway Beach boardwalk.

The June 2020 confrontation happened less than a month after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and just nine days after the state’s chokehold ban was signed into law as part of a package of police reforms.

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Afanador, 40, was the first officer charged under the law. Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said at the time that the ink “was barely dry.” It was his second arrest for job-related conduct in 16 years on the force. After another arrest in the spring for off-duty conduct, he resigned from the NYPD.

The grand jury’s decision Tuesday in the Queens chokehold case voids strangulation and attempted aggravated strangulation charges that prosecutors initially brought against Afanador last year.

In New York, grand juries act as a check on prosecutors, and all felony cases require an indictment in order to proceed to trial unless a defendant waives that requirement.

Afanador’s lawyer, Stephen Worth, said Tuesday they were “gratified that the grand jury saw this act for what it was: a simple act of taking an emotionally disturbed into custody to be evaluated.”

Worth said that Afanador testified before the grand jury, though he was not required to do so.

“There was no chokehold,” Worth said.

Afanador was suspended by the NYPD and arrested after cellphone video surfaced showing him tackling 35-year-old Ricky Bellevue and putting his arm around Bellevue’s neck as he lay face down on the boardwalk.

Prosecutors said Afanador kept Bellevue in a chokehold, a tactic that’s been banned by the NYPD for years, while other officers handcuffed him causing him to appear to go limp and lose consciousness.

Afanador finally let go of Bellevue’s neck once another officer pulled on his back, prosecutors said.

Before the take down, prosecutors said, Bellevue appeared to grab a can from a trash bin and asked officers if they were scared. Bellevue’s lawyer said the officers were aware that he suffers from mental illness.

Bellevue’s lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, said Tuesday that he was disappointed with the grand jury’s decision. He said a lawsuit against Afanador and the police department is continuing.

Rev. Kevin McCall, who is organizing a protest and rally on Bellevue’s behalf Wednesday outside Queens criminal court, called it a “misfortune of justice.”

Katz said in a statement that she was barred by law from discussing what went on in the grand jury, but that she would move to have minutes of the proceedings unsealed “in the interest of transparency.”

In 2016, Afanador was acquitted on charges he pistol-whipped a 16-year-old boy during a marijuana bust, breaking two of his teeth. The beating, seen on video, continued until the boy dropped to the ground and was handcuffed.

In March, he was arrested after police on Long Island say he fired a pistol into the Atlantic Ocean while off duty.

Police said officers investigating a report of shots fired in Long Beach spotted Afanador walking off the beach carrying a loaded 9mm Beretta pistol and three loaded 15-round capacity magazines. Afanador was also cited for possession of alcohol for carrying an open can of Truly Hard Seltzer.

Afanador remains free on bail while that case is pending. His next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 12.

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