As four New York City police officers piled atop a Black man on a Queens boardwalk on Sunday, one of the officers seemed to wrap his arm tightly around the man’s neck.
“Stop choking him, bro!” a bystander filming the scene screamed as the man went limp on the ground. “Let him go!”
Within hours, the bystander’s video went viral and police swiftly suspended the officer who had apparently held the suspect in a banned chokehold, with the NYPD’s commissioner calling the video “disturbing.”
“Accountability in policing is essential. After a swift investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau, a police officer involved in a disturbing apparent chokehold incident in Queens has been suspended without pay,” Commissioner Dermot Shea tweeted.
Police have not released the name of the officer who was suspended, but New York media outlets identified him by his badge number as David Afanador. Relatives of the man who was arrested, 35-year-old Ricky Bellevue, told The New York Times that he has a history of mental illness.
The case comes days after both New York City and state passed laws criminalizing police chokeholds, a tactic that’s come under intense scrutiny amid protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The New York state bill, which makes police chokeholds that result in death or injury a felony, is named for Eric Garner, a Black man who died in 2014 after repeatedly yelling “I can’t breathe” as an NYPD officer held him in a chokehold.
Sunday’s incident happened around 8:45 a.m. in Rockaway Park after officers responded to reports of a man yelling at people, The Times reported.
In body camera footage released by the department, several officers stand in a line along the boardwalk as three men taunt them and film the exchange with cellphones. The video shows police laughing as the men insult them.
The video takes a turn when Bellevue walks up to police and asks, “You scared?” The officers suddenly move to grab Bellevue, wrestling him to the ground. It’s not clear what precipitated the arrest. Police told NBC News that Bellevue had alarmed officers by approaching with a bag.
Video of the moment shows one of the officers appearing to lean on Bellevue with all his weight as his arm hooks around his neck. As the man filming yells in alarm, another officer taps the officer apparently applying a chokehold on the back, and he relents.
Bellevue lost consciousness during the arrest, Lori Zeno, his public defender, told The Times, and he had a bloody scalp and swollen wrists hours later in custody. He was reportedly booked on suspicion of disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest.
Afanador, the officer suspended in the case, has been accused of brutality before. In 2014, he was charged with assault after allegedly breaking a 16-year-old’s teeth by hitting him in the mouth with his service weapon during a drug arrest; he was found not guilty by a jury two years later.
NYPD has banned the use of chokeholds since 1993. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the department for quickly suspending the officer on Sunday.
“Today was the fastest I have EVER seen the NYPD act to discipline an officer,” he tweeted. “Within hours: Immediate suspension Body camera footage released Discipline process initiated This is how it needs to be.”
But Zeno urged the police to go further by charging Afanador under the new laws criminalizing chokeholds.
“I want the officer who put him in a chokehold to be in the cell next to him,” Zeno told the New York Daily News. “This guy should be charged criminally, and fired.”