Police wrestle with definition of chokehold

A woman places flowers at a memorial for Eric Garner on Dec. 3 near where he died in Staten Island, N.Y.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

Weeks after New York police placed Eric Garner in an apparent chokehold and he died after gasping, “I can’t breathe,” sheriff’s deputies in King County, Wash., began training to use a “lateral vascular neck restraint.”

The Sheriff’s Office described the technique as a less-than-lethal maneuver, on par with a baton or Taser. A person’s neck is placed in a V between an officer’s forearm and upper arm while pressure is applied to the carotid arteries on the sides of the neck.


Police chokehold: In the Dec. 10 Section A, an article about chokeholds said that sheriff’s deputies in King County, Wash., began training to use a “lateral vascular neck restraint” after Eric Garner’s death from a chokehold in New York in July. Training began in September 2013.
Proponents of the move say a vascular restraint does not impede breathing as does a chokehold because it does not target the windpipe, but instead restricts blood flow to the brain, potentially causing loss of consciousness.


But others in the community, including Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle King County NAACP, do not see a distinction.

“A chokehold by another fancy name is still a chokehold. Whatever the name may be, it is really another attempt by an officer to put his arm around someone’s neck,” Hankerson said. “When we see someone with their arms wrapped around someone’s neck, that is a chokehold.”

But for police departments and disciplinary boards, defining a chokehold is complicated business.

Even in agencies that have banned the chokehold, as the New York Police Department has, officers aren’t necessarily barred from touching someone’s neck.

In Washington state, after community opposition arose against the lateral vascular neck restraint, King County Sheriff John Urquhart said it would not be considered a less-than-lethal technique after all. Officers would use it only in life-threatening situations, he said.

The debate echoes the controversial history of the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1970s and ‘80s, when chokeholds were common techniques.


“Old-timers would talk about if a guy didn’t sign a ticket they would throw a bar-arm on him and choke him out,” Cmdr. Andrew Smith of the department’s media relations and community affairs group said, referring to the bar-arm chokehold, in which an officer uses his forearm to apply pressure directly against the windpipe.

In May 1982, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates banned the bar-arm chokehold after a 24-year-old black motorist sued in an effort to forbid the move.

Adolph Lyons said he had been stopped for a broken taillight in the 1970s and was placed in a chokehold so severe that it caused him to spit up blood. A federal judge ruled that officers had used a chokehold “without provocation.”

Weeks after Gates acted, the Los Angeles Police Commission voted to limit the use of the carotid chokehold, in which pressure is applied to the sides of the neck. The commission acted after the death of James Mincey Jr., a 20-year-old black man who was put in a carotid hold after leading officers on a high-speed car chase.

Mincey’s death was the 16th over seven years that was attributed to the carotid chokehold, The Times reported in 1993 when the City Council agreed to pay a $450,000 settlement to Mincey’s father.

The LAPD still allows officers to use a carotid restraint, Smith said, but restricts it to situations requiring deadly force.

The move is rare. It was used twice in 2013 and once in 2012, Smith said. It was used five times from 2007 to 2011, according to a use-of-force report by the LAPD’s inspector general.

Meanwhile, the controversy in New York is centered more squarely on what exactly defines a chokehold.

New York’s ban includes any pressure to the throat or windpipe that “may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” That still leaves a gray area that accounts for officers wrestling suspects into submission, said Maria Haberfeld, chairwoman of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College in New York City.

“It leaves room for distinction. It doesn’t say you absolutely can’t touch anybody’s neck. You actually have to restrict somebody’s breathing,” she said. “When it is defined like this, there is room for what I would refer to as the takedown.”

There are several other options to restrain a suspect, including forcing a suspect’s arm behind his back, called an arm bar, or kicking his legs out from under him. But Haberfeld said the effectiveness of those techniques can depend on the size and strength of the officer.

Last week, a Staten Island grand jury opted not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Garner’s death. To indict him, the grand jury would have had to determine that he intended to hurt Garner, as opposed to forcing Garner to comply with police orders, Haberfeld said.

The New York police union denies that Pantaleo used a chokehold.

Part of the confusion over the chokehold stems from the definition of the maneuver.

A recent report by the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, prompted by Garner’s July 17 death, found that the definition of a chokehold had “mutated” since 1993 to adapt to the NYPD’s disciplinary process. The emerging definition gave officers more leeway in subduing suspects.

The report suggests that although the police manual bans any move that “may” restrict breathing, in practice the ban has been enforced by the NYPD’s disciplinary board and by the complaint review board only in cases where an officer “actually and substantially interfered” with a suspect’s breathing.

Critics find such distinctions meaningless in the Garner case.

A video of the incident, and a medical examiner’s determination that Garner died after being placed in a chokehold that caused neck and chest compression, should trump semantics, said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“Everything you look at, it is a chokehold,” he said.

The New York review board’s report also showed there had been an increasing number of chokehold complaints over the years, including 1,128 chokehold allegations from 2009 to June 2014. Just 10 of those claims were substantiated by board investigators.

“In essence, inadequate disciplinary practices transplanted the heart of the chokehold rule during a period in which, as the number of chokehold complaints suggests, chokehold incidents were increasing,” the report found.

Although the NYPD’s patrol guide makes no specific reference to carotid holds, the report notes that they should fall under the ban because they may inhibit breathing.

The report recommended a clearer ban that hews closer to what NYPD Cmdr. John F. Timoney famously said when the 1993 ban was enacted: “Basically, stay the hell away from the neck.”