NEW YORK — A police cruiser constantly sits a few feet from a small floral memorial to Eric Garner on the Staten Island sidewalk where he spent his dying moments five years ago.
Tompkinsville Park, which police were targeting for patrols when they encountered Garner selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, remains a gathering place for desperate people.
Expletives flew on a recent hot afternoon as park regulars discussed everything from drugs and mental illness to jail conditions and the bail paid so they could sit on a park bench. It was the day after Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced his decision to fire the white officer who put Garner in a chokehold, hastening his death and making the man’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“If the police are here, they just move to the other side of the park and do their business there,” said longtime resident Lisa Soto, taking a long drag from a cigarette. “They sell everything here. Nothing has changed.”
That may be, some residents say, because police officers are now much more careful about how they interact with the public — more cautious when dealing with suspects and less likely to bother with the kind of nuisance enforcement that was a priority five years ago.
“When you give a lot of leeway like that, the place becomes lawless,” said resident Doug Brinson. “It’s been lawless for five years. Five years people do what they want to do on this block. Five years straight.”
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Bert Bernan, a former construction worker on disability, said respect for the police has plummeted and he sees crime as having risen in the neighborhood where he grew up in the 1960s.
“I remember, me and my friends, if we were goofing off on the corner and the cop waved a nightstick at you, you knew, get the hell off the corner and don’t give him any lip,” Bernan said. “Back then, you didn’t have hoodlums hanging out on street corners; what we have here is a disgrace.”
Garner’s death five summers ago was an inflection point for the New York Police Department. Caught on video, the fatal encounter between Garner, a black man, and Officer Daniel Pantaleo led the nation’s largest police force to train officers to de-escalate confrontations and to reassess how interact with the public.
A bystander’s cellphone video showed Pantaleo wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck and taking him to the ground with a banned chokehold near where the Staten Island Ferry takes commuters and tourists to and from Manhattan.
After Garner’s death, the police department required all 36,000 officers to undergo three days of training, including classes focused on de-escalation. Last year, it began training officers on fair and impartial policing, teaching them to recognize biases and rely on facts, not racial stereotypes.
In March, it finished outfitting all patrol officers with body cameras. And the department now requires officers to detail the actions they took each time they used force — not just when they fired their gun.
Following a court ruling and a policy shift, the city dramatically reduced officers’ use of stop and frisk, a practice in which officers stop people on the streets and search them for weapons. In 2011, the NYPD reported 685,724 such stops. Last year, there were about 11,000.
Associated Press video journalist David R. Martin contributed to this report.