Criminalizing police violence is a potent tool

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected].


On June 8, Hennepin County (Minnesota) District Court Judge Karen Janisch signed a far-reaching order that, among other provisions, flatly prohibits the Minneapolis Police Department from using chokeholds or neck restraints of any kind “for any reason.”

Janisch’s signature gives added force to an ongoing legal process in which the Minnesota Department of Human Rights has accused the police department of a discriminatory “pattern and practice of race-based policing” that violates the state’s human rights statutes. Among the events referenced in Janisch’s order is the May 25 death of  George Floyd.

Indeed, if her court order had been in force that day, it’s  possible that Floyd, 46, an African American resident of Minneapolis, might not have had his life stolen from him in almost nine agonizing minutes by four city police officers.

Floyd, his hands locked in cuffs behind his back, was positioned face down against the asphalt of a city street. As captured on heart-rending video recordings made by distressed bystanders, one cop pressed a knee against Floyd’s back, compromising his ability to draw breath. Another pushed a knee into the right side of Floyd’s neck, cutting the flow of blood to his brain.

The principal officer involved, Derek Chauvin, 44, is white and had 19 years on the force. Two of the other three officers present were rookies, one of them white and one African American. The fourth officer is of Hmong descent.

All four were fired the day after Floyd died in their custody, largely on the strength of the searing videos. The four have been charged with crimes ranging from second-degree unintentional murder to aiding and abetting manslaughter.

So, yes, it’s possible that if the provisions of Janisch’s court order had been in effect and obeyed by Chauvin and the others, Floyd would still be alive. And, yes, the court order may save the lives of future Floyds.

But the experience of New York City, where I lived and worked for 10 years in the 1990s and early 2000s, raises grave doubts about both of those hypotheticals.

Policies and practices adopted by the New York Police Department, the largest in the country, have often become models for law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions.

Long before the death of George Floyd, the NYPD banned the use of chokeholds, calling them “lethal and unnecessary” unless needed to protect an officer’s life. The policy took effect in 1985, but there’s a difference between taking effect and being effective.

Two years before the policy was issued, Michael Stewart, 25, an African American graffiti artist, died while in the custody of white members of the New York Transit Police, then an independent agency. One witness told investigators he saw Stewart lying on the sidewalk as an officer pulled up on a billy club that was under Stewart’s chin and against his throat. A medical examiner’s autopsy report attributed Stewart’s death to a spinal cord injury in Stewart’s upper neck.

Stewart’s 1983 killing by police was dramatized in the climactic scene in 1989’s fictional movie “Do the Right Thing,” arguably writer/director/actor Spike Lee’s finest film. I’ve shown the movie and discussed it with classes of film students at Webster University for more than 20 semesters. The scene depicts a white NYPD officer killing a black character named Radio Raheem from behind with a chokehold using a billy club pressed against Raheem’s  throat.

Two years after the movie was released, an unarmed 21-year-old Hispanic New Yorker named Federico Pereira, died while being arrested by multiple NYPD officers. A prosecutor stated that one officer had choked Pereira as he lay face down with his arms handcuffed behind his back. An autopsy report listed the cause of death as “traumatic asphyxia.”

In 1993, the NYPD modified its 1985 chokehold policy to eliminate the exception that permitted their use if necessary to save an officer’s life.

That didn’t stop NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo from killing Eric Garner by suffocation with a banned chokehold July 17, 2014, in the New York borough of Staten Island. The encounter began with police hassling Garner, 43, an African American man, about his attempts to illegally sell unpackaged cigarettes.

Onlookers recorded Garner’s death, preserving it for history, including his repeated cries of “I can’t breathe.” Those cries were echoed by George Floyd six years later and likewise were preserved for history, along with Floyd’s  ignored pleas for water and his desperate calling out to his dead mother.

Finally, just last Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a package of four strong police reform laws, one of which criminalizes police use of chokeholds as a Class C felony.

It comes 35 years after the NYPD established that policy restricting the use of chokeholds. It comes at the cost of lives of far too many people in those three and a half decades – disproportionately African American and Hispanic people – killed by police officers using chokeholds in spite of the policy.

Policies can be weak institutional remedies. They may change with changes in personnel. Enforcement may blow hot and cold with the shifting winds of election campaigns and political pressures unrelated to serving and protecting communities. Orders and policies can be weakened by loopholes supported by police labor groups and by a self-protective law enforcement culture that can allow violations to go unpunished and, thus, to continue.

The measures that Cuomo’s signature incorporates into state criminal law are harder to revise and are potent incentives to improve compliance.

The dedicated activists for racial justice and police reform in Minneapolis and throughout the country – young people particularly but not exclusively – seem to recognize the need to maintain vigilance throughout the process and to apply pressure in fighting the many challenges of persistent, embedded racism.

That legal actions in Minneapolis are officially being driven by the state’s Department of Human Rights seems especially appropriate.

To be sure, the deaths of George Floyd, Michael Stewart, Federico Pereira and Eric Garner — as well as Michael Brown, Eleanor Bumpurs, Edmund Perry, Philando Castile, Javier Ambler, Ahmaud Arbery, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, Derrick Scott, Freddie Gray, Justine Damond and too many more – were crimes against the unique men and women they were.

But the killings also were crimes against the people who knew and loved and cherished them: their family members, their friends, their neighbors and fellow workers. They were crimes against the people who shared the black and brown pigments in their skin and the people with few economic resources and fewer opportunities to alter that reality.

They were crimes against humanity.

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected].