On July 15, New York City enacted a law that “establishes a misdemeanor for restraining an individual in a manner that restricts the flow of air or blood by compressing the windpipe or the carotid arteries on each side of the neck, or sitting, kneeling, or standing on the chest or back in a manner that compresses the diaphragm, in the course of effecting or attempting to effect an arrest.”

In response, John Mueller, Police Commissioner in the neighboring city of Yonkers, New York, ordered his officers to stay out of New York City except in extreme circumstances.

In a press release announcing the order, Commissioner Mueller explained his reasoning:

“Despite our best efforts to minimize the use of force, it remains well possible that a police officer’s knee may end up on the chest or back of a violent suspect during a scuffle or arrest, especially during a one-on-one situation.

“We will not subject our officers to the threat of a year in jail every time they have to deal with a violent or mentally ill subject resisting arrest.

“New York City’s new law goes beyond effective policing. It jeopardizes the safety of both police officers and the public.”

PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Commissioner Mueller about the new law and its impact on the Yonkers Police Department.

Chuck Wexler: How is the New York City law impacting Yonkers?

Commissioner John Mueller: The main issue is not the chokehold. I think everyone, including the NYPD, is in agreement that chokeholds should be banned. No one is arguing that point.

Our concern is that they’ve written a law that is somewhat in conflict with New York State penal law provisions for the acceptable level of use of force. They are almost criminalizing when someone puts a knee on someone’s back, even for 10 seconds. This isn’t about prolonged kneeling, like in Minneapolis with the murder of George Floyd. This is about using a knee as leverage in some cases to subdue a violent suspect. It gets them into handcuffs as quickly as possible, so nobody gets hurt.

That was our main concern. Officers are subject to arrest now, and we can’t operate like that.

Wexler: What are the implications of this for the arrest process?

Commissioner Mueller:  The way the law is written, you absolutely cannot make a mistake. It’s something that is untenable. We have to be reasonable about these things. You have to allow for the fact that a knee may end up on someone’s back inadvertently if you’re trying to get someone into handcuffs. This is all about getting people secured as quickly as possible, because we know if that happens, there’s less chance for injury.

Commissioner Dermot Shea and his team at the NYPD are fiercely opposing this, because it’s really hampering them. And I can’t in good conscience allow my officers go down there with such a hastily written and irresponsible law.

Wexler:  You border New York City and you came from the NYPD, so this must have been a difficult decision for you to make. What have you told your officers?

Commissioner Mueller:  The orders are that officers are not to pursue into New York City. We did leave it open for some discretion in the event of extreme circumstances. But, for all intents and purposes, I don’t want them doing any enforcement activity in New York City.

New York City is right on our border, so when we cross the border, it’s usually in a pursuit situation. If a suspect is trying to get away, when the pursuit ends, there’s probably going to be some kind of struggle. That’s why he’s running away in the first place, because he doesn’t want to get caught.

I reached out to the NYPD’s Chief of Department, Terry Monahan, to talk to him about it. I expressed my sadness about what they’re going through there. It’s one of the most progressive police agencies in the world, and they are the light for so many other police agencies. Starting with Commissioner Bill Bratton, NYPD leaders have gone to other agencies and brought strategies that have been effective, and helped the policing profession.

But this action by the New York City Council is just untenable. And when things go too far, it’s the responsibility of professionals to stand up and explain why this isn’t going to work. We can’t just sit there in silence. So I hope in some way that our action is helpful to the NYPD.

Wexler:  What other jurisdictions took this action?

Commissioner Mueller:  The Westchester County Police Department, which also goes into New York City frequently for pursuits, has taken formal action. It’s my understanding that Nassau County, which borders Queens, has written a directive to stay out of New York City as best they can. Suffolk County has as well.

So everyone who borders the city is directing officers to stay away unless there are extreme circumstances, because we don’t want to subject our officers to arrests.

Wexler:  How do you think this will impact the NYPD’s everyday operations?

Commissioner Mueller:  When morale is good, officers are proactive, and they interact with the community. But Chief Monahan has said that morale is about as low as he’s ever seen it. When officers are demoralized, they’re often less inclined to engage, and there are consequences to that. We don’t want over-policing or aggressive policing. But there is a need for good policing, and the folks who need us the most are the ones who are going to suffer the most.

I think this is true in every industry. If you go into an office and everyone is miserable, you’re probably not going to get their best possible output. I don’t think that’s what we want.

Wexler:  How was your decision received in Yonkers?

Commissioner Mueller:  It was hard. The way police are being vilified right now, you feel like you’ll be criticized and there will be an overreaction to anything you do. But my mayor was fantastic. I explained the situation to him and he understood it. We decided to be more transparent by putting out a press release. I thought that was important, because when there are news reports, there’s an opportunity for people to muddy the waters and blur the message or get confused.

I was expecting to get beat up on social media, but people were overwhelmingly in support. Hopefully that’s because we explained it well.

This week I’m going to reach out to my community leaders and community activists to explain that this law in New York City isn’t about the way that George Floyd was treated. It’s simply that they’ve set a standard that’s impossible to meet. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.