In The Aftermath of Eric Garner's Tragic Death, The Legal Aid Society Calls For Policing Reform And Continues To Investigate, To Work With Community Partners & Local Politicans And To Offer Support
FRIDAY, JULY 25, 2014

Seymour W. James, Jr., the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, denounced the tragic death of Eric Garner and called for policing reforms.

"It’s unfortunate that Mr. Garner had to die for the police department to examine their practices but I think it goes beyond training," Mr. James said on NY1's The Call. "I think it also requires supervision and discipline. The Civilian Complaint Review Board had over a thousand complaints about choke holds in the last four-year period. Of those only nine were substantiated and then when the Civilian Complaint Review Board recommended discipline, the former police commissioner only imposed serious discipline in one of those cases. So the police have no deterrent to engaging in unlawful behavior because there’s no action taken against them when they violate people’s rights."

Late last week, upon learning of the untimely and senseless death of Eric Garner, a Legal Aid client, Christopher Pisciotta, Attorney-in-Charge of the Staten Island Criminal Office, immediately mobilized his staff to gain information, interview witnesses, speak to the family of Mr. Garner to offer our support, and coordinate with members of our Anti-Gun Violence Unit to work with community partners to push for answers. We have been in daily contact with members of the Mayor's office and local political leaders to press them to investigate this case and take action to insure policing reform. The Criminal Practice's Special Litigation Unit and the Forensic Unit are also involved in additional research in this matter. Mr. Pisciotta; Justine Luongo, Acting Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice; and Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice, met with clergy, community leaders, and political officials Wednesday night to discuss ways to address policing issues in Staten Island.

Mr. Garner had been represented by the Society. Mr. James said on New York 1's Inside City Hall that "most recently Mr. Garner had really insisted upon his innocence and was very concerned about the fact that the police had been targeting him and in fact, the video seems to reflect that. He says that, ‘you keep harassing me,’ and he was willing to go to trial on the matters that we had pending with him because of the fact that he’d been targeted by the police."

Mr. Pisciotta was interviewed on NY 1 and pointed out that there have been a number of complaints about officers from the 120 precinct using excessive force and beating clients whom they were charging with committing low level offenses.

In the meantime, scores of Legal Aid staff members continue to work with the community to gain information and press for reform.

The transcripts of the interviews are below.

The Call
NY1 New York
July 23rd, 2014

John Schiumo, Host: …Eric Garner’s death. What questions did you have when you saw the video?

Seymour James, Jr., the Legal Aid : The initial question I had is, ‘Why were the police confronting him?’ I don’t know that anyone has really said that they’ve seen him commit any offense. And then the actions that the police took were certainly over the top; attacking him from behind and putting him in a choke hold, which is clearly a violation of the police department manual - certainly subjected him to risk of serious injury. In this case; ultimately, unfortunately he died. It’s really unfortunate.

John Schiumo: How many Eric Garner cases are there out there in New York City—people who’ve been arrested multiple times for the same low-level crime?

Seymour James, Jr.: Tens of thousands. People are charged with drinking with an open container, container law, drinking in public. They’re charged with marijuana possession, they’re charged with riding bicycles on the sidewalk. People are arrested in the subway for taking up two seats at a time usually late at night when the cars are virtually empty.

John Schiumo: I heard that Eric Garner wanted to go to court to clear his name whenever he got in trouble with the law instead of accepting a small punishment. How common is that?

Seymour James, Jr.: It depends on the case. In this particular case, Mr. Garner had pled guilty in the past to offenses but he said in recent times the police had been harassing him and they’d been charging him with offenses which he had not committed . He insisted on his innocence and he wanted to go to trial to have the court determine that he was innocent.

John Schiumo: One of the questions we will be asking our viewers tonight is what change do you hope happens as a result of this tragedy. How would you answer that?

Seymour James, Jr.: Well, I would—I’m pleased that the police commissioner is going to subject the department to training. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Garner had to die for the police department to examine their practices but I think it goes beyond training. I think it also requires supervision and discipline. The Civilian Complaint Review Board had over a thousand complaints about choke holds in the last four-year period. Of those, only nine were substantiated and then when the Civilian Complaint Review Board recommended discipline, the former police commissioner only imposed serious discipline in one of those cases. So the police have no deterrent to engaging in unlawful behavior because there’s no action taken against them when they violate people’s rights.

John Schiumo: Seymour James, Jr. from The Legal Aid Society. Sir, thank you so much for joining us and having the first word tonight.

Inside City Hall
NY1 New York
July 22nd, 2014

Errol Louis, Host: Eric Garner will be laid to rest tomorrow less than a week after he died following a confrontation with police who were trying to arrest him allegedly selling illegal cigarettes. This comes as the investigation into Garner’s death continues amid calls for reform of how the NYPD deals with potential suspects as well as with low-level criminal violations. We’ve got a special panel here to talk about the case and its aftermath. Seymour James is the attorney in chief of The Legal Aid Society. Alex Vitale is an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of the book City of Disorder. Anthony Miranda is a former police officer and currently chairman of the National Latino Officers Association. And joining us from outside City Hall is our own criminal justice reporter Dean Meminger. So, welcome gentleman. Dean, let me start with you. At the press conference this afternoon the commissioner touched on a lot of different aspects of what he intends to do going forward. I was struck by the fact that he gave sort of a full-throated defense of broken windows policing. He didn’t give any sign that he was going to change his mind about the necessity to apply a lot of manpower and a lot of attention to those kind of issues.

Dean Meminger, NY1 Criminal Justice Reporter: Yeah, I mean he basically said he would continue to move forward with those quality of life initiatives going after small offenses because he believes, and those who back him believe, if you go after the small problems you can find bigger problems. Clearly this was an issue—a lot of people will say it was a small quality of life issue. Eric Garner selling allegedly illegal cigarettes, or Lucy’s as we in New York call them, and they went to arrest him and unfortunately it led to his death. So, with that in mind people are asking, ‘Hey, are you going to pull back of these quality of life initiatives?’ where you have a lot of interaction with people for small crimes. But this is the worst case scenario, many of the people I spoke to today say worst case scenario, where it could end like this when you have people interacting with police officers.

Errol Louis: Okay, and there’s some belief—and Alex Vitale you’ve written about this just recently—that quality of life, broken-windows policing either needs to be changed, reduced, suspended or re-interpreted to some extent. You basically have argued that the commissioner has kind of gotten it wrong about the need to do this stuff.

Alex Vitale, Associate Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College: Look, you can argue that broken-windows policing can be used to get rid of squeegee men, to get rid of young people doing dance routines on the subway, maybe even to get rid of, you know, low-level street marijuana distribution. But there’s just not evidence that this is a way to go after serious crime. And so I think there needs to be a major re-think about this. I mean the broken windows theory is fundamentally a product of the culture war of the eighties. It’s a neo-conservative theory about trying to re-establish moral order in the wake of the kind of social liberation movements of the sixties and seventies. I think that it’s inconsistent with the mayor’s larger politics and it’s not the reason for the crime drop.

Errol Louis: One of the things the commissioner said just as a practical matter that when he came in as commissioner the first time, back in 1994 , on any given day a quarter of a million were going into the subway system without paying and that, if nothing else, it cost the MTA eighty million dollars a year.

Alex Vitale: Yeah, and I think that you can use it to deal with that problem but to make an argument that it’s the reason for a national and international drop in serious crime, that’s where the logic breaks down. So I think it can be used in targeted ways to deal with disorder problems.

Errol Louis: The drop in crime rate is certainly sort of mysterious because it’s gone on in countries like Latvia where there is no broken windows policing at all but again, as a practical matter, there are thousands of people who are getting stopped, there are lots of people who were getting arrested. My understanding is that your office Legal Aid dealt with Mr. Garner on something like thirty cases in the past. What does that do to somebody who’s constantly in and out of court, in and out of police precincts?

Seymour James, Legal Aid Society: Well, first let me say we did not handle his thirty cases for Mr. Garner. We did have some cases with Mr. Garner. We had a number of them. And most recently Mr. Garner had really insisted upon his innocence and was very concerned about the fact that the police had been targeting him. And, in fact, the video seems to reflect that. He says that, ‘you keep harassing me,’ and he was willing to go to trial on the matters that we had pending with him because of the fact that he’d been targeted by the police.

Errol Louis: Wow. So even on relatively low-level he was going to insist on his right to a trial and make them pull in a jury and everything else?

Seymour James: That’s correct.

Errol Louis: Wow. And there’s a whole question about what the officers on the scene did and a lot of the conversation has not been about the policy of policing small violations but about choke holds and so forth. You were on the job in the era when all of this training and all of these policies were being talked about constantly, right, from the bias case forward. When you look at that video, what do you see as a former cop? You see cops who are following policies, cops who are making mistakes? What do you see?

Anthony Miranda, Chairman of the National Latino Officers Association: Well, you have a number of mistakes that were made because the primary policy of the police department is to isolate and contain an individual, which they had him contained. He wasn’t going anywhere; he was engaging them in conversation so there was no need to rush to action. When you come down to the chokehold, the manner in which he initially grabbed him, if you look at the video frame by frame, initially the officer did try to use what is called a ‘seatbelt hold’ to bring him down but in the individual at six-feet-three, three-hundred pounds is not going to get his balance back. You know, he going to try to get his balance back and in that the officer lost the grip and instead of releasing him he went to a chokehold which violates all department policies. And then he never released that hold even after the officers have taken the feet out from Garner and had him on the ground. Even after that he still didn’t let go of his neck and you hear him repeatedly saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ so as a point in time that the supervisors—then again, I’m not just talking about the uniformed supervisor that was on the scene because everybody focuses on the uniformed supervisor—but there was an anti-crime supervisor there as well which we’re not bringing attention to, two sergeants on the scene. And perhaps in this particular case in department policy going forward, they need to distinguish that when a uniformed supervisor on the scene they need to be able to take control of the situation because in this case that uniformed sergeant didn’t do anything because there was an anti-crime sergeant who had primary responsibility over those officers.

Errol Louis: Uh-huh. And Dean, let me come back to you. Is that level of conversation going on at One Police Plaza, as far as you know? That, hey, they got their wires crossed. It wasn’t clear who was in charge. They didn’t apply the holds the right way.

Dean Meminger: Yeah, well that’s actually a question that I did present to Commissioner Bratton this afternoon a little earlier. I said, ‘It wasn’t only the cop who applied that choke hold, but there were several officers there as well.’ And when I speak to various law enforcement officials they’re saying a lot of those officers should have jumped in, should have de-escalated the situation after the choke hold was applied. Now the commissioner said that they will be speaking to every single officer that was on the scene. They have identified every single officer. They’ll be speaking to them, they’ll be speaking to witnesses and they’re looking for more video. But Errol, I have to say, I was surprised to hear Bratton say—I guess he understands that DeBlasio is the boss here—He says he already met with community leaders, church leaders, elected leaders on Staten Island and he’s already met with the FBI and he said he believes that the US Attorney is going to open a case in this matter. I mean, that is a lot for the police commissioner to say so early on. Of course, that officer has his lawyers that he’s already probably speaking to from the union as well.

Errol Louis: Okay so that tees us up for a look at where things are going to head next so, Dean stand by right where you are. We’re going to take a short break now and then we’ll be back with this panel.


Errol Louis: Welcome back to Inside City Hall. We’re talking about the Eric Garner case with Seymour James from the Legal Aid Society, Alex Vitale of Brooklyn College, Anthony Miranda of the National Latino Officers Association and NY1 criminal justice reporter Dean Meminger. As we look at where things are going to head going forward, what’s your sense of how serious the commissioner is at sort of re-evaluating everything? He says he’s going to re-train every officer, all thirty-five thousand on the job.

Anthony Miranda: Training is somewhat of a resolution, but it’s not the problem right now. When you start focusing and sending members into quality of life issues they have to understand the gravity of the situation. You can’t escalate a quality of life victimless type of crime. You cannot escalate it to the point where you’re having these types of confrontations with police officers where you unnecessarily cause the death of someone. There has to be some rationale, some reasonable basis in between. You say, in this situation with Mr. Garner, they didn’t try to de-escalate the situation. They had ample opportunity to have the conversation, they had ample opportunity for a supervisor to come in and have the conversation by all the videos. No supervisor took control of that situation. They allowed the officers who are there—and again, they didn’t de-escalate it. It’s a situation that could have been avoided, should have been avoided. And then look at the situation on why they initially stopped him. Did they have probable cause to stop him at all? Did they have any information that caused them to arrest him? And if you didn’t, then now we’re talking about you’re forcing officers again. This whole quota system the police department continues to say they don’t have, but they do have, where they have these officers go out and try to get these numbers and it’s the same thing with these quality of life situations. They’re going out and they’re like, ‘go out, gimmie some arrests.’ There has to be some common sense application to it.

Errol Louis: So, Seymour James. Have we sort of replaced one problem with another? I mean, I know Legal Aid and a number of other advocates were saying that the two fifties, the constant stop, question, frisk for low-level marijuana arrests was the problem. But it doesn’t really matter whether its marijuana, cigarettes or anything else. If there’s too much of the wrong kind of police attention, right?

Seymour James: The stop and frisk was not the only problem. The quality of life initiative subjects the communities to abuse. You see many instances where the police escalate a situation, as the former police officer described, to a level which winds up in a confrontation. We have another case in Staten Island, which took place just a few doors from the very location where Mr. Garner was subjected to the abuse by the police, where we have on video a police officer beating a man on his legs while holding him down with his foot with a baton. There’s an instance we have in New York on the F train. A man was travelling late at night, he was coming home from work, and he was sleeping on the train. Part of this initiative on the subways is to not have people take up more than one seat.

Errol Louis: Even at two o’clock in the morning.

Seymour James: Four o’clock in the morning the video shows that he was the only person there. I guess there was someone at the other end of the car who actually took the video. And he was roused up and, understandably, was upset that he was being told to get off the train because he was going home from work. That incident also escalated and wound up with him being arrested.

Alex Vitale: I have these videos on my website which people can just Google me and find it and it’s a sign of a kind of level of resistance that people are putting up to this constant low-level harassment that’s especially happening in communities of color that is generating a lot of resentment. And this is dangerous for the people who were resisting, like Mr. Garner. But also dangerous for police like the officer who was assaulted just recently that the commissioner spoke about in the press conference today. I think it indicates a kind of breakdown of police legitimacy that people are tired of the constant harassment and it’s not just stop and frisk it’s the tens of thousands of low-level marijuana arrests, it’s the tens of thousands of summons for open container and illegal vending that we see every day in arraignments.

Errol Louis: And Dean Meminger, this was part of what the mayor campaigned against saying that he was going to bring about better relationships between the police and the communities. I understand this is just one particularly horrific incident but, is there any sense that maybe that mandate from the voters to the mayor to the police commissioner isn’t working out as they planned?

Dean Meminger: Well, I’m not sure of that quite yet but you better believe Bratton is trying to work on that because he said today, you know, he’s going to give the mayor a report when he returns from Italy next week about this and he’s already doing all of these meetings and he said this is a tragedy for the city, for Eric’s family, as well as for police officers because it doesn’t help them when it comes to community policing but on the other side. I have spoken to a lot of police officers and they say it appears the guy, he is resisting even though somewhat holding his hands up, not fighting them, but he is resisting and they couldn’t walk away. One person telling me that, you know, this is why officers can’t get into street fights because they’re really not street fighters. You don’t know where it ends. They’re trying to do their jobs and a situation like this could happen and it is a tragedy for officers involved because some of them are going to be in a lot of trouble and, of course, this man is dead now.

Errol Louis: In our last thirty seconds, Anthony Miranda, Cops are going to be the folks in the middle. What do you think happens next with them?

Anthony Miranda: Well, again, quality of life—I think they’re still going to need to enforce those rules. There has to be a better temperament when trying to enforce those rules. There has to be a better relationship with the community not to have these things escalate and there have to be people willing to have the conversation to de-escalate the situation. Again, I’m a retired sergeant. Even supervising, again when you say former they think I got fired—I didn’t get fired, I retired from the police department—so, we see the problems that we have. Eliminate quota systems; admit that we have them, eliminate them. Then say quality of life should not be escalating into these street confrontations and I think there’s a disconnect between the issue about the public being told to stop, question and frisk. They’re no longer allowed to do that thing. And between resisting arrests, the law clearly says you cannot resist arrest even if you are right so when we do training and educate our community we say don’t resist arrest. You can get arrested and you can get a lawyer and fight back, fight back and defend yourself later. But the confrontations in the street are a no-win situation for our community and we should never be put in that situation.

Errol Louis: Someday that video is going to be a training video, isn’t it?

Anthony Miranda: Absolutely. And if you see, they try to use the appropriate hold but you can’t take a six-foot-three individual, three-hundred pounds and have a four-foot person trying to use a technique that’s not useable in that situation.

Errol Louis: Okay, we’re going to say goodnight for now. Thank you all so much for coming by. Dean Meminger, we’ll look forward to more of your reporting from the field.

News All Day
NY1 (IND) New York
June 22nd, 2014

Anchor: The public defender’s office on Staten Island says the man who died in police custody last week felt harassed by officers, and now the Eric Garner case is raising a lot of questions about how some police officers do their jobs. New York 1’s Rocco Vertuccio joins us with the details. Rocco?

Rocco Vertuccio, Reporter: Jeannine, before 43 year old Eric Garner died here on Bay Street last week, the Legal Aid Society was representing him in three different cases – two where he was accused of selling untaxed cigarettes and another one where he was accused of driving without a license. These are considered low level crimes, but it’s in these types of cases where the public defender’s office says it has received numerous complaints from police here on Staten Island for using too much force. In this cell phone video that captured police trying to arrest Garner last week for what they say was selling untaxed cigarettes, Garner can be heard saying to police to leave him alone, that he was not selling cigarettes, that he was actually trying to break up a fight. In the video, Officer Daniel Pantolio is seen using what appears to be a chokehold on Garner, something the NYPD banned 20 years ago. The Legal Aid Society says Garner constantly felt harassed by police here on Staten Island. He vowed to fight all the charges against him. Attorney Christopher Pisciotta says his office, over the past year, has received numerous complaints about officers at the 120 police precinct on Staten Island for excessive force, including one for allegations of drinking in public, right on the same street here where Garner died.

Christopher Pisciotta, Attorney: The officers alleged that he was resisting them. The client stated that he was not, and there was videotape showing that the officers again threw him down to the ground, striking him with a baton.

Rocco Vertuccio: And the Civilian Complaint Review Board – that’s the board that reviews complaints against police officers from the public – it has substantiated ten chokehold cases over the past few years: nine between 2009 and last year, one so far this year. In all those substantiated cases, the board did recommend the most serious disciplinary action against the officers but that did not always happen in all those cases. That is the latest from the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island, Rocco Vertuccio, New York 1. Jeannine, back to you.

Anchor: Thanks, Rocco.