“The ink from the pen [New York] Governor [Andrew M.] Cuomo used to sign this legislation was barely dry before [Afanador] allegedly employed the very tactic the new law was designed to prohibit,” Queens County District Attorney Melinda Katz said in a statement. “Police officers are entrusted to serve and protect, and the conduct alleged here cannot be tolerated.”
The state legislation was named for Eric Garner, a black man who — like Floyd — died after telling the officer restraining him by the neck that he could not breathe. Prosecutors did not charge the now-fired New York City officer who, according to police, held Garner in a chokehold long banned by the department.
A lawyer for the man Afanador allegedly strangled, 35-year-old Ricky Bellevue, invoked that history Thursday, calling on prosecutors to ensure justice is served this time. Afanador could face up to seven years in prison, officials said.
“Today was the first step in the march for justice for this victim: the arrest and arraignment of this police officer,” attorney Sanford Rubenstein said at a news conference Thursday. “But what’s really important is that he be convicted and sent to jail for what he did, to set an example to other police officers that if you violate the law, you will go to jail.”
Afanador’s lawyer dismissed the charges as a product of “enormous political pressure” on prosecutors to punish police officers for misconduct after Floyd’s death. That killing in May gave rise to nationwide protests of police brutality, especially toward black Americans.
“It’s disappointing that New York prosecutors are now finding it fashionable to make almost immediate arrests instead of conducting a sound and thorough and fair investigation,” said the lawyer, Stephen Worth, who says his client did not use or intend to use a chokehold.
In 2014, Afanador was charged with assault for allegedly breaking a 16-year-old’s teeth by hitting the teen in the mouth with his service weapon during a drug arrest, his lawyer confirmed. A jury acquitted him.
New York City officials have emphasized the need to meet misconduct with swift action. Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) tweeted this week that Afanador’s suspension Sunday marked “the fastest I have EVER seen the NYPD act to discipline an officer.”
“This is how it needs to be,” he said.
The outcry over Bellevue’s treatment during his arrest built quickly Sunday. Video showed four New York City police officers piled on top of him on a Queens boardwalk; one of the officers, eventually identified as Afanador, seemed to tightly wrap his arm around the man’s neck.
“Stop choking him, bro!” a bystander filming the scene screamed as Bellevue went limp on the ground. “Let him go!”
Video shows Afanador 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 Afanador and he relents.
Afanador had responded in the morning to a “call of someone screaming and yelling at people on the Boardwalk,” according to the district attorney’s office. In body camera footage released by the department, several officers stand along the boardwalk as three men taunt them and film with cellphones.
Bellevue walks up to police and asks, “You scared?” The officers suddenly move to grab Bellevue, wrestling him to the ground. Bellevue had “appeared to retrieve a can from a trash receptacle” just prior, the DA’s office states.
Worth says his client was reacting to a “fighting posture” by Bellevue and feared the man would harm someone, while an attorney for Bellevue, Lori Zeno, said the officer attacked Bellevue “because he was a poor black man with a mental illness” — bipolar disorder — and who officers believed had been throwing objects days earlier, an accusation that Worth disputed.
Body camera footage captures the officers discussing one of the men they’ve encountered as a “bipolar” person who they thought was previously throwing bottles.
Prosecutors said Afanador intended to impede Bellevue’s breathing or circulation.
“Body-worn camera footage shows these police officers were cursed at and badgered,” the Queens County DA said in a statement. “Every day, however, police officers find themselves in circumstances that require them to exercise restraint and are charged with de-escalating potentially volatile conflicts.”
Calling Afanador dangerous, Bellevue’s attorneys and advocates have criticized the decision to release Afanador without bail as preferential treatment for a police officer.
The Rev. Kevin McCall, a local civil rights activist, said at Thursday’s news conference that Bellevue is “still suffering from the abuse, the brutality, the chokehold that this officer did to him.”
The charged officer “should be behind bars,” McCall said.
Tim Elfrink contributed to this report.