We Need A National Ban On Chokeholds Immediately

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
'I Can't Breathe' is scrawled on the pavement outside the District Attorney's office during a peacef...
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When a police officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, it again brought the conversation of choking and excessive force to the spotlight. Though this isn’t the type of chokehold we’re usually talking about, it still highlights the conversation. Using excessive force on a person’s neck can have deadly results, as evidenced by Floyd’s death. Chokeholds should be a non-lethal takedown tactic by law enforcement. But they’ve become deadly enough times, at the hands of violent cops, that it’s time to ban them completely.

Though the attention is currently on law enforcement’s use of the holds, many of us are familiar with chokeholds because of sports like wrestling or MMA fighting. However, there is a level of training athletes have that police officers either don’t have or don’t use. Anthony Clarke, a wrestling referee based in Illinois, explains the fundamental difference between the uses.

“Outside of law enforcement, there’s always the use of a third party,” he says. “They monitor the hold and the effect it has on the person it’s being applied to. That’s why you don’t have loss of life. In the police world, there is no third person with the authority to step in and break that submission hold.”

If you look at the case of George Floyd, there were three other police officers standing watch while the fourth had his knee in Floyd’s neck. At any point, they could have stepped in and stopped what was happening, but they chose to stand by and be complicit.

According to The Atlantic, here are the two main strangulation holds police officers use. There’s carotid restraint, which temporarily stops blood flow to the brain, rendering the victim unconscious temporarily. Though they’re unconscious, it doesn’t cut off the ability to breathe. Then there’s a chokehold, which does restrict breathing because pressure is being applied to the windpipe. According to Clarke, they turn deadly when used improperly, or when the person applying the hold doesn’t know when to stop.

The conversation of banning police officers from using the chokehold was moved to the forefront in 2014 after the killing of Eric Garner. Garner, an unarmed Black man in Staten Island, New York, was murdered by police using a banned chokehold. Similar to Floyd, there were multiple police officers on the scene when Garner was choked to death. The police officer who killed Garner was found guilty of using the banned chokehold and fired. However, Federal prosecutors and a Staten Island Grand Jury decided not to bring charges against the cop.

Since Garner’s murder, many are fighting to have an official ban on the move because it has proven to be lethal. Clarke explained that in sports, the submission hold is used to get the other person to submit, making it easier to win. Law enforcement, if using the holds properly, would be doing the same thing. It’s simply a way to get the other person to become submissive.

Chokeholds are supposed to be a non-lethal way for police to take down violent criminals. But because of their lack of training or understanding of how the physiology of the body, they will continue to apply force, not stopping until the victim is unconscious or dead.

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“I have been pushing for this legislation right after my son was killed and they told me it would include the police officer, if he ever violates this, to be arrested and charged immediately. Because this has been in the rulebook for many years but it’s never been adhered to, so now we’re going to have legislation on it and if they violate, they will be disciplined,” Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr told New York City’s Pix11.

Technically, there have been bans in place for over 20 years in some places. The Los Angeles Police Department banned the “bar arm” chokehold in 1982, according to NPR. And though New York signed the ban into being earlier this month, NYPD banned chokeholds in 1993. It’s exactly as it stands now — unless an officer’s life is in danger. So when the officer put Eric Garner in a chokehold, he was already breaking the rules. We’ve seen in the video that his life was no way in danger.

Legislation to ban chokeholds in New York was again introduced in 2014. Bill DeBlasio, mayor of New York City said in 2015 that he would veto the bill. He has since changed his tune. He agreed on May 31st to sign the bill if an officer being in a “life or death situation” was addressed, according to NY1. On Friday, June 12th, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo signed a package of bills, which includes banning law enforcement from using chokeholds. The push to end the practice is spreading, as California’s governor Gavin Newsom has also called for an immediate end to strangleholds.

In an uncharacteristic move, the President announced he was signing an executive order to reform police departments. The executive order does also address the ban on chokeholds. Of course, the ban includes the caveat of the officer’s life being in danger. This is obviously problematic, because we’ve seen that the idea of ‘danger’ being very loosely interpreted, and get people killed.

The executive order is a good show of saving face in the wake of calls for police reform. But it’s hard to know if it will actually lead to any real changes. Most people, myself included, remain highly skeptical.

“Through a presidential executive order, the president has the ability to direct federal government agencies and federal government personnel to take certain actions,” ABC News contributor John Cohen explains. “A presidential executive action has little impact on the day-to-day operations on state and local law enforcement agencies.”

NPR did a review of bans on neck restraints such as strangleholds and chokeholds. And their findings are pretty much what we’d expect. Looking at bans in some of the largest police departments in the United States found them to be “largely ineffective and subject to lax enforcement.” Besides, even if there is a ban on those specific holds, another kind of neck restraint is likely being used instead.

“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,” Paul Butler tells NPR. Butler is a former federal prosecutor and author of the book Chokehold: Policing Black Men.

Banning chokeholds is long overdue, and it’s good to see the government stepping up to finally address this. It’s just a shame that it has taken so many Black people dying at the hands of police officers to start the conversation.

Stopping chokeholds specifically is incredibly important due to loss of life. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know if the ban would actually work. As Clarke said, there is a severe lack of checks and balances to ensure officers aren’t using them. We know that if they have body cameras, it’s easy to turn them off. And if there are no witnesses around, who’s to say they wouldn’t use it?

The lack of enforcement is one of the main reasons police departments need to take chokeholds off the table completely. Yes, when used correctly, they don’t kill people. But the problem is they’re not being used correctly, nor can we trust cops to use them correctly and indiscriminately. We need a safer alternative immediately, or more lives will be lost.

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