NEW YORK – A New York City police officer suspended from duty after he was recorded Sunday putting a man in what the police commissioner said was a banned chokehold could face criminal charges for the second time in his career.
Queens prosecutors said Monday they've opened an investigation into Officer David Afanador's actions on the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach, adding that “there must be zero tolerance for police misconduct.”
Afanador was acquitted in a previous case stemming from allegations he pistol-whipped a teenage suspect in Brooklyn and broke two of his teeth.
The police department moved quickly to suspend Afanador without pay after Sunday’s confrontation. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced his suspension just hours after video was posted on social media and called the swift action a sign of “unprecedented times."
“I think we have an obligation to act swiftly but we also have to get it right and to inform the public about what’s going on,” Shea told TV station NY1 on Monday.
It's at least the second time Afanador has been suspended from the force. The officer was sidelined after his 2014 arrest, only to return to duty after a judge acquitted him and his partner of all charges in 2016.
In that case, Afanador was seen on video using his gun to hit a 16-year-old boy during a marijuana bust. The beating continued until the boy dropped to the ground and was handcuffed. That altercation, which came six weeks after the police chokehold death of Eric Garner, also made headlines.
Afanador was involved in eight incidents that were the subject of complaints to the city’s police watchdog agency since joining the police department in 2005, according to records obtained Monday under a new state law making disciplinary files public.
They ranged from using discourteous language to using physical force and refusing to seek medical treatment. All of the allegations to the city’s Civilian Complaint Review were either unsubstantiated or led to exoneration except for the ones stemming from the altercation that led to his arrest.
In Sunday's incident, in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis, a video shot by one of the men involved in the altercation showed officers tackling a Black man and Afanador putting his arm around the man's neck as he lay face down on the boardwalk. Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz has declined to prosecute any charges against the man.
Body camera footage released later by police showed that for at least 11 minutes before the arrest, three men were shouting insults at the police while the officers implored them to walk away.
“You had four officers engaged with three gentlemen on the boardwalk for probably 10 to 20 minutes exercising extreme restraint," Shea said, testifying at a hearing on recent clashes between police officers and protesters.
“I think people should be condemning the acts, in my opinion, of the individuals — the language they used," Shea continued. "I feel most bad for the people that have to walk by on that boardwalk. 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.”
Chokeholds have long been banned by the NYPD and their use has been especially fraught since Garner died in 2014 after an officer put him in a chokehold while trying to arrest him. Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week signed a statewide ban on police chokeholds.
The speed with which the NYPD suspended Afanador stood in sharp contrast to the drawn-out police disciplinary process of years past. Alluding to the public’s demand for police accountability since Floyd’s death, Shea told NY1: “I think it’s unprecedented times."
Shea agreed to testify at Attorney General Letitia James' hearing on the department's response to recent protests after she publicly rebuked the police department and Mayor Bill de Blasio last week for ignoring invitations to participate.
Shea told James that fewer than 10 officers were being disciplined for alleged misconduct toward protesters, including one who was suspended without pay and later charged with assault after he was caught on camera shoving a woman to the ground on May 29. Shea said he was "very disturbed" by the incident.
Shea, however, defended officers seen on video driving their police department SUVs into a crowd, saying a preliminary internal investigation has concluded the officers were under siege and attempting to avoid harm. The matter remains under investigation by several city agencies.
James, a Democrat, is expected to issue a report on her findings by the end of the month.
In his testimony, Shea also underscored the plight of officers met with violence, such as bricks and bottles hurled at their heads. He said about 400 officers were injured in the unrest, with about 100 yet to return to duty.
“This was some of the worst rioting that occurred in our city in recent memory,” Shea said. He commended officers for their performance “in policing these protests, ending the riots and upholding the rule of law.”