NYPD officer charged in swift test of state’s chokehold ban

NEW YORK (AP) — Moving swiftly amid a global furor over police misconduct, New York City prosecutors on Thursday filed criminal charges against a police officer caught on video putting a Black man in what they said was a banned chokehold, causing him to appear to lose consciousness.

Officer David Afanador pleaded not guilty Thursday to strangulation and attempted aggravated strangulation charges stemming from the confrontation Sunday on a Queens beach boardwalk. He was released without bail and faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.

Afanador was charged under a recent change in state law barring police officers from using chokeholds, District Attorney Melinda Katz said, adding that her office has "zero tolerance for police misconduct.”

It is the second time Afanador, 39, has faced criminal charges for alleged brutality in 15 years on the police force. In 2016, he was acquitted on charges he pistol-whipped a teen suspect and broke two of his teeth.

Afanador’s lawyer said his client was facing a rush to judgment in the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and public pressure to hold police officers accountable for alleged misconduct. Floyd was killed a month to the day before Afanador’s arrest.

“It’s become fashionable for prosecutors to make summary arrests of police officers without a full and thorough investigation,” lawyer Stephen Worth said. “The concept of due process seems to go out the window.”

The NYPD suspended Afanador without pay after cellphone video surfaced showing officers tackling 35-year-old Ricky Bellevue and Afanador putting his arm around Bellevue’s neck as he lay face down on the boardwalk.

Before the take-down, prosecutors said, Bellevue appeared to grab a can from a trash bin and asked the officers if they were scared. Bellevue's lawyer, Lori Zeno, said the officers were aware that he suffers from mental illness.

“He could've been talked down so easily,” Zeno said outside court after Afanador's arraignment.

Body camera footage released by police Sunday night showed that for at least 11 minutes before Bellevue was tackled, he and two other men — one of whom shot the cellphone video — were shouting insults at officers, who implored them to walk away.

Officers were at the Rockaway Beach boardwalk responding to a call about someone yelling at people, prosecutors said.

Afanador kept Bellevue in a chokehold while other officers handcuffed him, prosecutors said, causing him to appear to go limp and lose consciousness. Afanador finally let go of Bellevue's neck once another officer pulled on his back, prosecutors said.

After suspending Afanador, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said Monday that the officers had acted with “extreme restraint” and that the men taunting with sometimes foul language should also be condemned.

“But at the end of that story, an officer put his hand around a person’s neck, and that (officer) was dealt with swiftly and was suspended,” Shea said.

Rev. Kevin McCall, a Brooklyn civil rights activist, called Afanador’s arrest a “step in the right direction, but we've still got a long road ahead.”

“This officer should be in jail," McCall said. “He should've been in a 4-by-4 cell thinking about what he did, which is illegal."

Chokeholds have been banned by the New York Police Department for years. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed a measure outlawing them statewide June 12. Katz, in a statement, said the ink from Cuomo's pen “was barely dry” before Afanador allegedly violated the new law.

The chokehold issue has been particularly fraught since the death of Eric Garner after an officer put him in a chokehold in 2014. In that case, a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved. A federal civil rights investigation also concluded without charges being filed.

Afanador is the second NYPD officer to face brutality charges this month.

Officer Vincent D’Andraia pleaded not guilty June 9 to assault and other charges days after a bystander recorded him violently pushing protester Dounya Zayer to the ground during demonstrations over Floyd’s death, causing her to hit her head on the pavement.

Zayer, testifying last week at a hearing on police violence, said she has suffered constant migraines and struggled to keep down food since the May 29 shove left her in the hospital with a seizure and concussion.

“Where are the good cops that I keep hearing of?” Zayer said.

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