Use of choke-holds by police

Since I saw the headlines about Eric Garner dying during a confrontation with a police officer in New York, especially when he called out more than once that he couldn’t breath, I’ve been wondering what went wrong. Something did. It shouldn’t have happened. I don’t mean Mr. Garner being arrested. That is a completely different issue, which I will not get into at this time. What I will get into, though, is the use of a choke-hold.

I’ll start out by saying a choke-hold can be a good, effective and safe method of controlling a combative prisoner or someone about to become a prisoner. That’s right–safe. But only if it is done correctly. I know because I’ve used them on combative persons a few times in my eighteen years on a police department, and not one of them died or suffered lasting ill effects, or even filed a brutality complaint against me.

I’m afraid the problem is that there are officers out there that don’t know how to properly apply a choke-hold. If there are police academies that skip over that little item in their arrest procedures classes, it goes right back on them, and there is no excuse for it. In any police department that allows or encourages its officers to use choke-holds, it is the department’s responsibility to ensure that every officer is trained in the proper method for its use. If an officer serves in a position, either on the street or in a jail environment, that he might need to use a choke hold for his safety as well as that of the person he is trying to subdue, there is no defense the department can use to justify him not being properly trained. Yes, it also falls, ultimately, on the officer not to use a choke-hold, or anything else, if he is not trained to use it. Unless the situation is so dire that he would be justified to bash the person over the head with a baseball bat rather than let him escape, if he doesn’t know how to use a choke-hold, he shouldn’t even try. And I don’t mean it’s okay if he thinks he knows how; I mean unless he has been trained and demonstrated after his training that he knows how. It is simply too easy to kill a person. Better to let him get away and catch him another time.

Another thing to be aware of is that even a properly applied choke-hold may not work on obese persons due to the amount of tissue in the neck.  If there is so much stuff there that the carotid arteries cannot be closed off with applied pressure, it shouldn’t even be attempted. Enough pressure to accomplish that job may break his neck first. From what I remember of the video of Eric Garner, he was pretty hefty. Maybe the officer’s arm around his neck was meant only as a restraining hold and not intended to put him out. But, if that was the case, it appears he wasn’t trained in the proper way to apply a restraining choke-hold (which is not really supposed to choke him). Alas, in a bad situation that is getting worse, panic is probably never far away, and panic has a way of increasing the amount of energy expended in whatever is attempted. But, that is straying away from the use of a choke-hold and into issues I don’t want to tackle right now.

So, back to using a choke-hold safely, and I am not just blowing air. If a choke-hold is done the right way, the person being choked has no problem breathing. I know; that sounds like an oxymoron. But that is because it isn’t really a choke-hold. It is just called that because it probably evolved over time from a real choke-hold in which a person was deprived of the ability to breathe until he passed out–or died.

What a properly applied choke-hold does is cut off the flow of blood to his brain. Now, doing that is just as dangerous as stopping his breathing, so knowing when to release the pressure is at least as important as knowing where and how to apply the pressure. Held too long, depriving the brain of oxygen for too long, which can be mere seconds, and serious damage occurs causing anything from permanent impairment to death. I’m talking seconds, here. You can’t hold a conversation with someone else while you’re waiting for the guy to stop fighting. You can’t hold him for a bit longer after he stops struggling just to be sure he’s not bluffing. As soon as he goes limp you have to release him. No waiting. No finishing your phone call to your girlfriend. You release him immediately. But that’s not the end of it. If you and he are on your feet, you have to hang onto him and ease him down so he doesn’t fall and break his head. Remember, he is unconscious, and you are the one who put him that way. You then have to check him for life signs to be sure you didn’t hold him for too long. Make sure he has a pulse and is breathing. If he isn’t, start CPR immediately. Make sure he is lying in a position that his breathing isn’t impaired. Make sure the surrounding mob doesn’t take turns kicking him. Make sure he isn’t lying across the tracks with a train coming. You put him out, and he is your responsibility. Put the cuffs on him, but, otherwise, let him come around. It won’t take long.

One of the occasions in which I used a choke-hold was in the booking room. The guy I had arrested was young, healthy, and just a bit drunk, although not falling down; just enough to be belligerent and uncooperative. As soon as I got him into the booking room and before I could close and lock the door, he decided he had had enough of that nonsense and was going to leave. I grabbed him before he got to the door, and the fight was on, although no one actually got hit. I got around to his back side with both of us sitting on the floor and put a choke-hold on him. In less than ten seconds he went limp and I released him. After checking him for life signs, I elected to postpone the rest of booking until he had sobered up. I dragged him through the doorway into the cell block and into the first empty cell where I left him lying on the floor. Before I could turn to leave the cell, he stirred, looked up at me with wide eyes and, in a wonderous voice, said, “Wow! What a trip!”

I’m not going to describe the technique for using choke-holds for the same reason I’m not going to describe how to make a Molotov cocktail or pipe bomb. Insisting that this should not be attempted at home merely prods some folks to try it. And, like I said, choke-holds can, indeed, be lethal if not done correctly, and that can be learned only through training.

I won’t say a part of the training has to involve having a choke-hold placed on each trainee, but it’s not a bad idea. We did it in the academy I attended many years ago. I remember the pressure on both sides of my neck, but I also remember being able to breath with no problem. I remember it started with a ringing in my ears, then a diminishing of daylight starting at the edges of my vision and moving inward fairly quickly. I remember everything going black, and then waking up lying on my back. There was no pain, either before or afterwards. It was an experience I have never forgotten. And I don’t doubt it was something that has prevented me from having other experiences that I wish I could forget.

2 thoughts on “Use of choke-holds by police

  1. Gerry says:

    Good stuff again, Wayne. I think the key words here is “training, training and more training.” Not sure if you knew this but at the time of Garner’s death the “Carotid Restraint Hold” was forbidden by NYPD policy although there are conflicting accounts as to how well that ban was enforced. The key danger that LAPD found in a study they did, aside from improperly apply it in the first place, is over stimulation of the vaygus nerve if the hold is applied more than once in a short time frame. When that nerve is overstimulated, the autonomic respiration system shuts down. I think you had already retired, when PPD changed the policy to have anyone who had a carotid restraint hold applied, checked at the hospital. Naturally, that became a huge time consumer, especially if the hospital was busy. So it’s use fell in disfavor. With the introduction of pepper spray and Tasers, the need to get “up close and personal” to apply a carotid restraint is pretty much a thing of the past.


    • foywminson says:

      Gerry, good to hear from you. I learned about the over-stimulation of the nerve when I was taught to use the hold, and that it is another reason to pay attention to what you’re doing. If you have to re-apply it on the guy, you probably didn’t do it right the first time so you shouldn’t do it again, anyway. Still, if it is a choice between a carotid hold and a choke hold where the fragile windpipe can be so easily damaged, I’d rather go with the carotid. And the problem with tasers is they are too tempting to use. They shouldn’t be the first option unless things have progressed so far and so fast that lesser options are already off the table. Things don’t usually happen that fast. That’s why we see tasers used much too soon and much to often–and way too many times. If the first time didn’t work, most likely the next fifteen won’t either. So, when that happens, is the next only option to shoot with your other gun? Is it better to just kill him outright than to possibly over-stimulate his vaygus nerve with a fairly effective carotid restraint, and take him alive?


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