Challenging police brutality and the lack of accountability for the officers who practice it is a continuing battle, despite the many reforms that have been introduced in the wake of the harrowing George Floyd killing in 2020.
The viral video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on 46-year-old Floyd’s neck during an arrest last May is at the center of a murder trial now underway, where jurors have heard from multiple expert witnesses that kneeling on human’s neck is a surefire way to put their life at risk.
But in New York City, a law passed by the City Council last summer making it a crime for officers to use choke holds similar to the kind that killed Floyd was still not enough to justify charges against NYPD officers who used a knee-on-neck restraint to arrest a Black man in the city in January.
Queens County District Attorney Melinda Katz last week announced her decision not to charge NYPD officers seen on video arresting Sircarlyle Arnold in Queens two months ago, with one of the cops seen kneeling on the Black man’s neck while he is laid out on the pavement as bystanders protest.
According to Legal Aid Staff Attorney Olayemi Olurin, who represented Arnold in the case, he was apprehended by officers on allegations that he was operating an ATV.
Though the misdemeanor charges against her client were dismissed this week, Olurin told The Root she finds it concerning that the NYPD officers have been let off the hook for kneeling on her client’s neck to the point that he couldn’t breathe—even as the Chauvin trial is underway for a similar kind of restraint outlawed by NYC lawmakers in the wake of Floyd’s killing.
The DA, who chose not to bring any charges against the officers involved, said her office consulted medical experts, NYPD trainers, bodycam footage and conducted interviews to arrive at the finding that there was no evidence that the officer involved in the arrest “restricted the flow of air or blood by either compressing Mr. Arnold’s windpipe or the carotid arteries on each side of his neck.” She added that there was no evidence that the officer restricted Arnold’s air or blood flow by kneeling on his neck, chest or back.
But Olurin says the prosecutor’s findings contradicts the experience of her client, who said he couldn’t breathe during the arrest as one officer knelt on his neck and several others surrounded him.
She added that no medical experts spoke to Arnold, and told The Root that the DA’s unwillingness to press charges against the officers is evidence that reforms passed amidst last year’s national uproar against police violence do not necessarily equate to a New York justice system that wants to hold cops accountable.
“They just passed this to quell the protests. Chokeholds have been illegal in New York City since 1993,” Olurin said, also pointing to the death of Eric Garner from an unlawful police chokehold in 2014. “They passed this law and here is the first incident to hold officers accountable like they promised that they would, and they chose not to.”
In the meantime, Legal Aid NYC is calling on the NYPD to take disciplinary action against their own officers in this incident, “to send a strong signal to the NYPD that violent acts such as this, all too frequently employed against men of color, will not be tolerated.”
The NYPD has given no indication that they will do so. When reached by The Root, an NYPD spokesperson would only say that “an internal investigation is still ongoing.”