Eric Garner, who died in police custody last week after he was put in a chokehold, was suspected of committing the relatively minor crime of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the street.
The encounter was an unintended consequence of the New York Police Department’s embrace of the policing tactic called “Broken Windows” — the idea that going after smaller crimes such as public drinking or graffiti helps stop greater disorder such as assault and murder.
But Garner’s death has put Broken Windows under renewed scrutiny, with some lawmakers and experts saying the decades-old theory no longer applies.
“I don’t think it’s a necessary police tactic,” Councilman Andy King said Tuesday during a news conference about Garner’s death. Councilwoman Inez Barron added that such enforcement “leads to confrontations like this.”
The tactic caused a stir even before Garner’s death. An 84-year-old pedestrian on Manhattan’s Upper West Side who tussled with police officers trying to stop him for jaywalking earlier this year ended up with a bloody head injury.
Garner’s arrest was captured on a widely distributed amateur video that appears to show an officer putting the asthmatic, 350-pound father of six in a banned chokehold after he refused to be handcuffed. He can be heard repeatedly yelling, “I can’t breathe!” as several officers take him down.
Autopsy results are pending on a death that has sparked protests, a criminal probe and a threat by Al Sharpton that Garner’s family would explore asking for a federal civil rights investigation.
The criticism comes at a time when the new administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has sought to ease tensions between police and minorities by curtailing the department’s widespread use of street stops of young men — so-called stop and frisk — as a strategy to curb crime. Police commissioner William Bratton uses Broken Windows as an alternative tool to help keep crime rates at historic lows.
Bratton vowed on Tuesday to stick with the program, saying the NYPD plans to next target illegal vendors who rent bikes in Central Park. He credited a similar crackdown on fare beaters during his first tenure as police commissioner in the 1990s with being the “tipping point” for a drastic reduction in overall crime in the subways.
“There’s no change in that focus at all,” Bratton said of Broken Windows. “That’s a key part of what we’re doing.”