Many across New York are still struggling to understand how Eric Garner — the Staten Island man accused of the minor crime of selling loose cigarettes — could wind up dead after five cops took him to the ground in a violent arrest. Some are portraying the death as a freak incident.
But a review of court records and arrest data, along with interviews of attorneys, law enforcement experts and citizens, show it’s not uncommon for low-level arrests to spiral dangerously out of control – in some cases leaving people accused of minor offenses seriously hurt.
“One thing you learn as a police officer is minor violations make people flip out sometimes in a way that robbery, domestic violence and murder do not,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City Police Officer who now teaches law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “People will take the tack that, you know, ‘What are you bothering me for? Don’t you have anything better to do?’”
The NYPD says it has no data that would show how often its officers use force in arrests for low level crimes. But court records hint at the scale of the issue.
In New York City over the past decade, cops made 55,000 arrests where the top charge was resisting arrest, according to data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.
That means the misdemeanor or infraction cops originally pursued was less serious than what happened during the arrest.
“I would say an overwhelming majority of the time when you see resisting arrest tacked on to a very low -level disorderly conduct charge or a marijuana charge, what you will hear and come to learn is that there was some altercation that went on — and typically it is the person being arrested who shows some injury,” said Robin Steinberg, executive director of the Bronx Defenders, a public defender and social service organization.
The city’s police union did not respond to an interview request. But Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, did talk about use of force in the Garner case.
“We don’t have a choice when there’s a violation of law. We must place that person under arrest,” Lynch said in a video posted on the union’s website. “This person made it clear that he was not going to go. The police officers only wanted to bring him to the ground to place him under arrest and bring him to the station house.”
To be sure, people do resist arrest. And law enforcement experts say acting quickly and with force can actually keep a situation from getting out of hand.
But some like Steinberg say cops can be the ones who escalate a situation. She said that's especially a problem given the department’s adherence to the ‘Broken Windows’ theory of policing. That’s the belief that stopping quality-of-life offenses will keep larger crimes from happening.
She said when officers go after small-time criminals as aggressively as they would violent criminals, "it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re much more likely to escalate confrontations and overstep the bounds of their authority."
Other charges that can signal that an arrest turned violent are special felony assault charges for people accused of injuring a cop or other public safety worker. Those are the top charges in more than 1,300 cases each year. But disposition data shows the charges rarely hold up in court.
Attorneys said that’s because in many cases it’s the citizen who was hurt, but some cops add the assault charge to justify their use of force.
Former Assistant District Attorney turned defense attorney Dietrich Epperson said he handled around a dozen such cases when he was a prosecutor in Queens. He said he found almost all of them suspect.
“The officer usually almost immediately knows there’s going to be a problem. The suspect is basically asking for medical attention and they know ‘Uh-oh, this victim’s going to go down to the hospital and we need to go into protection mode,’” Epperson said.
Blayn Crosson found himself in that situation. Two summers ago, he was driving in his Brooklyn neighborhood when cops pulled him over as part of the controversial stop-and-frisk policy.
According to a lawsuit he filed in state court, a short time after the interaction he saw the same cops stopped at a light near his house. So he approached their van and asked for their badge numbers.
He said they refused. So Crosson walked around to the front of the van to look at the license plate, which is when the cops piled out. By stepping in front of their van, he was allegedly engaging in disorderly conduct, which can be charged when someone obstructs traffic.
Crosson pulled his arm away when a cop tried to grab him, at which time they started hitting him, he said.
“I don’t even remember how long I was on my feet for, because it was just arms and legs, arms and legs, coming from everywhere,” Crosson said, adding that he didn’t put up a fight. “If I’d have fought back, they would have killed me out there.”
Crosson ended up needing staples in his head. He was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer. The charges were ultimately dismissed and he’s filed a lawsuit against the officers, court records show.
The city’s law department declined to comment because the lawsuit is pending. The NYPD did not respond to an interview request.
In a press conference after Garner’s death, Police Commissioner William Bratton said he will continue to aggressively pursue quality of life offenses. But he also said there could be other ways to handle people accused of such crimes.
“If it requires arrest, fine. But if it only requires an admonition — ‘Move along, you can’t do that.’ — Well, I want to make sure our officers understand that they’re given great powers of discretion,” Bratton said.
He also said NYPD officers will be retrained on the use of force.