American law enforcement applies physical power through a “continuum of force.” Each agency has its own in accordance with that jurisdictions laws and regulations. It is difficult to make absolute statements concerning continuums because they are so numerous and often contradictory. Nonetheless, I’ll offer an absolute statement: Nobody is allowed to apply a chokehold in less than serious circumstances and no agency teaches chokehold techniques. Chokeholds can easily kill because of the possibility of unintentional damage to the windpipe. Even when pressure is released prior to death or unconsciousness, death may occur due to damage the trachea. So, officers who apply a chokehold do so in the last extreme when it appears no alternative is available. That was not the circumstance in New York when a NYPD detective confronted a black market cigarette salesman, nor was it true that the officer applied a chokehold.
The officer applied what is referred to as a carotid restraint. Unlike a chokehold which restricts air, a carotid restraint only restricts blood. A chokehold requires a forearm across the throat. The carotid is applied by the bicep pressing against one side of the neck and the forearm against the other. Watch the video; the officer does not choke the suspect. Consider that a person who is choked, that is deprived of air, cannot repeatedly say, “I can’t breathe.” No air flow, no speech.
So what is the legal reasoning for the carotid restraint? It varies from state to state. I worked in one state that considered the carotid to be deadly force whereas another state in which I was employed considered it on par with the police baton. When properly applied the carotid applies no lasting damage. The goal of the technique is cause a temporary unconsciousness in a very short amount of time (a few seconds). Most suspects will realize that unconsciousness is imminent and submit prior to completion of the technique. As a rule, the carotid does much less damage than strikes from fists and batons. If you watch professional MMA matches, you will often see the carotid restraint applied as a submission technique; that’s what it is in law enforcement, too.
The New York incident involved a carotid restraint, not a chokehold. It also involved several officers on top of an overweight man with pre-existing medical problems. The restraint was justified. Control of the suspect’s hands was not as quick and immediate as it might have been. But that’s the nature of law enforcement. Fights are never textbook and nothing works perfectly. It will easy for police defensive tactic instructors to find deficiencies in the response of the on-scene officers, and that’s good. There needs to be continual improvement. But we also need to grow up a little bit. Nothing goes well in a fight and no cop knows in advance how far things will go. The real answer in preventing these tragedies is to remember that as a free people in a democratic republic with constitutional protection of God-given rights, we are obliged to submit to the police and make use of our “day in court.” Self-restraint is the mark of a truly self-governing people. Let’s fix that first.