Recently news broke that former Home Improvement star Zachery Ty Bryan was arrested for allegedly “choking” his girlfriend. As prosecutors and as advocates for tougher penalties and responses to strangulation cases, this wrong use of terminology drives us nuts. But not only because it’s a misrepresentation of the bio-mechanics; this misrepresentation is dangerous, and minimizes the risks associated with non-fatal strangulation and the dangers of those who commit this crime.
It’s strangulation, not choking.
Choking is an accidental obstruction of the windpipe, resulting in a blockage that prevents normal breathing — or, more simply, when an object is lodged in your windpipe and keeps you from breathing. Strangulation, on the other hand, is the external pressure to the neck that blocks air flow, blood flow, or both, and can result in the alteration of consciousness and even death. When someone places their hands or another object around your neck, they are not choking you, they are strangling you — and if they do it for long enough, you could die. In fact, a person can be rendered unconscious within seconds of consistent pressure on the neck, and could be dead in less than four minutes.
Stranglers pose a risk not only to their victims, but to the community at large. Studies on mass shooters show a correlation between domestic violence strangulation and mass shooting. The DC Sniper and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooter were both previously accused of strangling their intimate partner. The list goes on; Cedric Ford, who in 2016 fatally shot and killed three co-workers and injured 14 others, and Esteban Santiago, who shot and killed five people and injured six others at the Ft. Lauderdale airport, had both previously been charged with strangling their exes.
In fact, Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization against gun violence, reports that 54% of mass shootings have their origins in domestic violence. The Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, a leading organization on strangulation, reports that in a majority of mass shootings, the perpetrator kills an intimate partner or family member. Additionally, a 10-year study out of Riverdale California’s District Attorney’s office found that 50% of the cases where an officer was killed in the line of duty, the perpetrator had a prior incident of intimate partner strangulation. Individuals who strangle are different, and strangulation cases needed to be treated differently.
In the domestic violence world, strangulation is not only seen as extremely dangerous because a victim can lose consciousness within seconds; it is a giant red flag for further abusive behavior and homicide. A victim of non-fatal strangulation is 750% more likely to end up the victim of a domestic violence homicide after one incident of strangulation. Survivors of strangulation are at risk for injuries such as stroke, brain damage, and multi-system organ failure, not only right after the incident of strangulation, but for weeks, months, and even years later. Survivors of non-fatal strangulation also report experiencing long-term memory or neurological injuries as well as increased rates of anxiety and fear that can be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even knowing all these risks, strangulation is commonly overlooked by law enforcement and paramedics as only about 50% of strangulation victims have observable injuries, and perhaps most concerning of all, only 3% of strangulation victims seek medical treatment after a strangulation incident. This statistic is largely based upon a lack of education in our communities about the dangers and risks associated with strangulation. Law enforcement, paramedics, and even prosecutors play a role in this lack of education because for years we focused on cases with visible injuries, ignoring the cases that should have been red flags for homicide.
Over the last 10 years, that has changed, and with training and education comes the ability to look for ways to corroborate strangulation without external visible injuries. We have learned about the bio-mechanics of strangulation and how to better partner with our hospitals and medical experts, not only ensuring victims of strangulation receive needed medical treatment, but to aide in criminal prosecutions. We have also learned that the trauma of strangulation requires a different type of criminal investigation, one that begins the moment the 911 call is made.
So much has changed in our understanding of the inherent risks of strangulation, and we continue to advocate for stronger penalties and better medical resources. This year Maryland became the 47th state to make strangulation a felony, but we need to do more as a country. We need to speak up and speak out, especially when the media minimizes the crime. We need to ensure that everyone understands the dangers of strangulation, starting with our young people, as current statistics show that 1 in 10 high schoolers has already experienced dating violence. We need to educate our legislators, all the way from the local elected prosecutors and sheriffs to our national legislators.
Strangulation in the domestic violence setting represents a symbol of power and control to the abuser, a way of saying “I can kill you anytime I want.” The abuser is instilling fear, ensuring the cycle of violence associated with domestic violence continues. Seeing media reports calling the incident a choking, rather than a strangulation, perpetuates the myth that non-fatal strangulation doesn’t exist and allows abusers to minimize the lethality of their abuse. It’s important to know the risks, know the signs and symptoms, and most importantly, it’s important for us to use the word. So next time, get it right: it’s strangulation, not choking.