The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last night against the city of Syracuse and two officers of the Syracuse Police Department for placing a 14-year-old in a chokehold and causing him to lose consciousness. The SPD’s dangerously inadequate use-of-force policy fails to recognize that chokeholds can be lethal; indeed, it makes no mention of chokeholds at all.
“After the tragic death of Eric Garner shocked the world, no one can claim to be unaware of the deadliness of chokeholds,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “It is hard to fathom how Syracuse police could knowingly put a 14-year-old asthmatic child’s life at risk, particularly when he was threatening no one.”
September 27, 2016 was the day plaintiff “T.H.” turned 14. As he walked home with his brother, a fight broke out outside of Corcoran High School. The brothers broke up the fight out of concern for the young children leaving a nearby school, but it started again by the time SPD officers arrived. Although T.H. and his brother were not involved in the fight, T.H’s brother was inexplicably pointed out by Officer Paul Rose amongst the crowd of other students making their way home. T.H. believed his brother was free to go and reached out to tell him to move along so they could go celebrate their birthday.
Seeing this, Sergeant Dennis Regin dragged T.H. by the neck and threw him to the ground, choking him for more than 45 seconds. T.H. lost consciousness. Officer Rose slammed his knee into T.H.’s neck and smashed his chin into the ground, causing a large gash. Though T.H. was bleeding, Sergeant Regin refused to take him to the hospital. T.H. also suffered pain in his neck, a bruised leg and emotional distress.
“When I was little, I wanted to be a police officer,” T.H. said. “That changed after the encounter I had. I want my story to be heard and I want people to see how this impacted my life. I don’t want this to happen to anybody else.”
“I still think about what would have happened if my son had never woken up after he lost consciousness,” T.H.’s mother, Tiesha Shepherd said. “Police can’t be allowed to get away with this.”
The lawsuit argues that what happened to T.H. is the result of SPD’s dangerously inadequate use-of-force policy. The policy says almost nothing about the proper use of deadly physical force and the appropriate times to use it. It makes no mention of chokeholds, neither defining what constitutes one or when one may be used. Dozens of departments nationwide have either banned chokeholds outright or in situations that do not merit the use of deadly force. SPD’s use-of-force policy also prohibits officers from drawing distinctions between children and adults except within the Taser policy, which was improved as part of a settlement in a previous lawsuit brought by the NYCLU in 2010.
“SPD’s deficient policies all but guaranteed that the life-threatening brutality T.H. experienced would happen,” said lead counsel and NYCLU Staff Attorney Kevin Jason. “The department must change course before unprepared officers put more children in harm’s way.”
For years, the city’s Citizen Review Board has repeatedly warned SPD that its use-of-force policy is inadequate and made recommendations for improving it – including banning chokeholds, except when lethal force is necessary. None of those warnings or recommendations has been acted on by the department.
"It is heartbreaking that on his birthday, of all days, T.H. suffered a life-threatening encounter with the police,” said NYCLU Central New York Chapter Director Yusuf Abdul-Qadir. “The Citizen Review Board has consistently reported the need to overhaul SPD's use-of-force policy, and this case shows why the city and the police cannot afford to delay that work."
The lawsuit charges that the City of Syracuse, Sergeant Regin and Officer Rose violated T.H.’s federal and state constitutional protections against excessive force.