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How Decades Of Bans On Police Chokeholds Have Fallen Short

Jun 16, 2020
Originally published on June 16, 2020 11:05 am

In the wake of George Floyd's death, a flashpoint in the debates over police reform has been the push to ban chokeholds nationwide. Advocates believe that enshrining a ban into law will deter police violence.

And it's gaining traction. Congressional Democrats have proposed a legislative package that calls for a ban on all neck restraints. President Trump, though he stopped short of full support of a ban, said late last week that police should avoid using chokeholds. And the state of New York passed a law banning the tactic.

But an NPR review of bans on neck restraints in some of the nation's largest police departments found them largely ineffective and subject to lax enforcement. And when chokeholds specifically were banned, a variation on the neck restraint was often permitted instead.

Neck restraints fall into two broad categories: a chokehold, which restricts the airway when pressure is applied to the front of the neck, and a stranglehold, which restricts blood flow to the brain when pressure is applied to the sides of the neck.

"The bottom line is that you're cutting off somebody's air supply [or] the blood flow to their brain and eventually they will be incapacitated," explains Lorenzo Boyd, director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven.

Some of the biggest police departments in the country have already instituted bans on chokeholds. The Los Angeles Police Department banned what's called the "bar-arm chokehold" in 1982. The New York Police Department banned chokeholds in November 1993 — except when an officer's life is in danger. And the Chicago Police Department did the same in May 2012. Philadelphia and Houston have similar policies.

Las Vegas police Undersheriff Kevin McMahill speaks in Las Vegas on May 17, 2017, after the death of Tashii S. Brown, known as Tashii Farmer-Brown. Police had used a stun gun and a chokehold on him. In a change announced in September 2017, Las Vegas police officers can no longer routinely use neck restraints to render combative people unconscious.
John Locher / AP

And yet over the past two decades there have been multiple people who have died when neck restraints were used in their arrest.

Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, remains one of the most high-profile deaths.

But there are many others: James Thompson in Chicago. Allen Simpson in Dallas. Rodney Lynch in Gallup, N.M. Dustin Boone in Las Vegas. Roger Owensby Jr. in Cincinnati. Carl Glen Wheat in Amarillo, Texas. Gerald Arthur in New Orleans. Torris Harris in Chattanooga, Tenn.

In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed and where chokeholds had been permitted until this month, the police used neck restraints at least 237 times since 2015 and rendered 44 people unconscious through the technique, according to a report by NBC.

Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and author of the book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, says part of the problem is a lack of accountability.

"If we look at the ban in New York City, it's kind of like a rule in an employee handbook: 'Don't use a chokehold.' We shouldn't expect those kinds of light bans to work," he says.

In fact, when the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board studied its use in 2014, it found hundreds of complaints a year alleging that police officers used the technique — and even concluded that the use of chokeholds at the time appeared to be rising despite a decades-long ban.

"There is an enormous bias inside the police department when the police department is disciplining its own people to avoid diluting the power of any particular officer to use or employ a chokehold," says Richard Emery, who served as the chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board when it reviewed the use of chokeholds in New York City.

He says he doesn't think a nationwide prohibition on neck restraints will lead to more prosecutions but that it could lead to better outcomes.

"It'll have a deterrent effect. Whether it will actually result in more discipline and more prosecutions is doubtful in my mind. I think it is worth doing," he says.

Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, attends the funeral service for George Floyd at The Fountain of Praise church in Houston on June 9.
David J. Phillip / AP

Some say that neck restraints have their purpose in responsible policing and should not be subject to an outright ban.

"With the proper training and the proper continued training, I think it is a safe method to control somebody," says Michael Schlosser, director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute. His police academy trains more than 800 police agencies in Illinois.

"Actually, sometimes if you can control somebody like that, a lot of times you might have less injury rather than getting in an all out fight, and people have a chance to have greater injury to the officer or to the arrestee," he says.

But he adds that "without the proper training, without continued training, knowing how much pressure to give ... it needs to be so many repetitions that it's automatic for you. Officers are expected to do so much. But physical skills sometimes get left behind just because of the lack of funds by the department."

Police officers have returned time and time again to the neck restraint as a way to gain compliance.

"It is the vulnerability of every human being to have the most important organ in their body easily affected and directly affected by constricting the neck," Emery says.

"And therefore, unlike other parts of the body, it is the place where police officers go instinctively, automatically and even by virtue of their culture, to dominate any particular individual, especially of individuals who they feel threatened by, who are larger or who are strong or where they feel are intimidating even when they're not."

And that fundamentally is the challenge for lawmakers. When officers need to take violent action, how might they tamp down the instinct to go to that vital area of the body: the neck.

Researcher Katie Daugert contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis led to protests. Those protests center on a demand for urgent police reform, including a ban on officers using chokeholds. NPR's Tim Mak examines the maneuver - what it is, why police use it and whether a ban would be effective.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The tactic comes in many forms with many names. A chokehold restricts the airway when pressure is applied to the front of the neck. A stranglehold restricts blood flow to the brain when pressure is applied to the sides of the neck. Neck restraints are a broader term that refer to both.

LORENZO BOYD: The bottom line is that you're cutting off somebody's air supply and the blood flow to their brain.

MAK: Lorenzo Boyd is the director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven.

BOYD: And eventually, they will be incapacitated. They will faint, or they'll pass out. And then at that point, you can do whatever you want.

MAK: NPR reviewed policies on neck restraints in some of the nation's largest police departments and found that bans have not always been effective. While some police departments banned chokeholds, they might then allow their officers to use strangleholds. For example, the NYPD has banned chokeholds for almost three decades, but...

PAUL BUTLER: It's kind of like a rule in an employee handbook - don't use a chokehold.

MAK: That's former federal prosecutor and Georgetown law professor Paul Butler, who wrote the book "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." When New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board studied its use in 2014, it found hundreds of complaints a year alleging that cops used the technique and that the use of chokeholds at the time appeared to be rising.

BUTLER: Unless there is real accountability, we shouldn't expect those kinds of light bans to work.

MAK: Over the past 20 years, some of the biggest police departments in the country have instituted bans on chokeholds. The LAPD have had a ban on what's called the bar arm chokehold since 1982. And many of the nation's largest police departments, like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston, have similar policies.

And yet there is incident after incident where people have died over the past two decades when neck restraints were used in their arrest - one of the most notable cases, that of Eric Garner in New York six years ago, who repeated, I can't breathe 11 times before losing consciousness. But there are many others - James Thompson in Chicago; Allen Simpson in Dallas, Texas; Rodney Lynch, Gallup, N.M.; Dustin Boone in Las Vegas; Roger Owensby Jr. in Cincinnati, Ohio; Carl Glen Wheat in Amarillo, Texas; Gerald Arthur in New Orleans; Torris Harris in Chattanooga, Tenn. And following Floyd's death, chokehold bans are again a central topic of discussion.

GWEN CARR: And we want a federal law that - it will go around the country, and any time anyone uses a chokehold, they are immediately - immediately - locked up and charged.

MAK: That's Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, now an advocate for police reform. President Trump also weighed in, saying police should avoid using chokeholds but stopped short of fully supporting a ban. Meanwhile, the state of New York implemented a chokehold ban, taking the decades-long NYPD departmental ban and enshrining it into state law. And Congress is now weighing a national federal ban on neck restraints. But not everyone thinks they should be outlawed entirely.

MICHAEL SCHLOSSER: If done properly with the proper training and the proper continued training, I think it is a safe method to control somebody.

MAK: Michael Schlosser is the director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute. He prefers to focus on training rather than advocating for a national ban.

SCHLOSSER: Actually, sometimes if you can control somebody like that, a lot of times, you might have less injury rather than getting in an all-out fight, and people have a chance to have greater injury to the officer or to the arrestee.

MAK: And time and time again, police officers have returned to the neck restraint as a way to gain compliance. Richard Emery was the chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which reviewed the use of chokeholds in New York City.

RICHARD EMERY: It is the vulnerability of every human being to have the most important organ in their body easily affected and directly affected by constricting the neck. And therefore, unlike other parts of the body, it is the place where police officers go instinctively, automatically and even by virtue of their culture.

MAK: And that, fundamentally, is the challenge for lawmakers - when officers need to take violent action, how to reduce that instinct to go to that vital area of the body, the neck.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.