New York Times
January 12, 2015


Despite Scrutiny, Police Chokeholds Persist in New York City

By AL BAKER and J. DAVID GOODMAN

Before pepper spray, Tasers, expandable batons and portable radios, New York police officers facing resistance from a criminal suspect had another option: the chokehold. By 1993, though, the New York Police Department had joined departments in other large cities by banning the chokehold with an order that amounted to, in the words of former Chief of Department John F. Timoney: “Stay the hell away from the neck.”

But two decades later, the police in New York continue to use the tactic, and in July, a chokehold by an officer contributed to the death of an unarmed black man on Staten Island. The public anger that followed a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer fueled demonstrations across the country, and in New York, the protests laid bare a rift between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police.

Even as the mayor and his police commissioner, William J. Bratton, have tried to bridge the divide, the killing of two officers last month has hardened the distrust and led to a citywide enforcement slowdown by many of the department’s 35,000 officers.

Yet the concern over police tactics that emerged after the death of the Staten Island man, Eric Garner, never subsided.

On Monday, the newly created city inspector general for the Police Department said in its first report that in several cases reviewed, police officers went to the chokehold as a “first act of physical force” when facing “mere verbal confrontation.”

And, as the Police Department, prompted by Mr. Garner’s death, undertakes a sweeping review of its use-of-force policies, senior commanders have been taking a hard look at the chokehold ban.

In free-ranging discussions designed to subject everything to scrutiny, police officials have debated the effectiveness of the 20-year-old prohibition. Participants in the discussions have asked, for example, whether chokeholds should instead be classified as deadly force, permissible when someone’s life is in danger, but governed by the same standard and intense review imposed on an officer’s decision to fire a gun.

That such questions are being asked, even privately, and perhaps to provoke a robust debate, is a sign of how vexing the issue of chokeholds has been for decades.

Back in 1994, just over a year after the police commissioner at the time, Raymond W. Kelly, categorically banned officers from using the maneuver, a Bronx man named Anthony Baez Jr. died when an officer, enraged that a football had hit his patrol car, put Mr. Baez in a chokehold.

Two decades later, complaints about officers using chokeholds continue to flow into the independent city agency responsible for investigating police abuse. From 2009 to June 2014, the agency, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, found enough evidence to substantiate complaints against 10 officers accused of using the move on duty.

In July, the use of a chokehold emerged again, this time in the fatal encounter on Staten Island between Mr. Garner and Officer Daniel Pantaleo. The confrontation, much of it captured on video, provided a direct look at the potential effect of an officer’s arm being wrapped around a person’s neck.

The city’s new police inspector general, Philip K. Eure, appointed in May, made chokeholds the subject of the first formal investigation by his office, which was created by the City Council in 2013. His staff analyzed the 10 chokehold cases referred for discipline by the Civilian Complaint Review Board to the Police Department, and the report raised questions about the effectiveness of police training and the disciplinary process.

The endurance of the chokehold can be traced, in part, to the unpredictable nature of struggles between officers and the people they are trying to apprehend. That various types of neck restraint are widely used adds to the challenge.

“The thing about it is, if you do it correctly, it doesn’t result in injury,” said Harvey Hedden, the executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. He pointed to the police in Kansas City, Mo., where officers developed the “lateral vascular neck restraint” — a kind of chokehold — meant to cut off the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain and render a suspect unconscious.

Even in places where chokeholds are banned, officers sometimes simply fall back on what works.

“For 20 years they’ve been frowning on the chokehold,” said Phil Messina, a retired New York City sergeant who now teaches self-defense tactics privately to officers. “What they forget is that they have a hundred-year tradition of the chokehold.”

Contributing to the maneuver’s persistence in New York City is a loosening of the department’s enforcement of its own ban, which covers “any pressure to the throat or windpipe which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” In practice, the review board found, the department had interpreted the rule to cover only instances in which choking actually occurred.

As a result, officers almost never faced punishment for using such maneuvers.

Police departments have struggled to move away from the chokehold, partly because of a reluctance to strip officers of a tactical option in life-or-death confrontations in which they do not want to use a gun, said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a research organization based in Washington.

Some departments allow for chokeholds in their written policies but do not train officers in their use; others train officers to use the maneuver but have no written policy for it, Mr. Wexler said.

Still, there is good reason for police departments around the country to have backed off any move that restricts someone’s neck. “They don’t apply it correctly and then people are dying,” Mr. Wexler said.

In Los Angeles, 16 people, many of them black, died from 1977 to 1982 in cases in which a chokehold was used. Under the threat of lawsuits, the city banned one particularly lethal kind of chokehold, the bar-arm hold, which cuts off air supply by crushing the larynx. Another version that cuts off blood flow, the carotid-neck restraint, is still allowed in extreme circumstances.

In upstate New York, a grand jury impaneled by a special prosecutor in 1989 declined to indict an officer who held a man around the neck during a struggle at a movie theater in Wallkill, N.Y. The medical examiner found that the man, Jimmy Lee Bruce Jr., died of asphyxia by compression of the neck.

In its report, the grand jury found that the local police department had not trained officers in the “hazards posed by neck restraints,” and urged the New York State Legislature to require that all officers in the state be made aware of those hazards.

The carotid chokehold is dangerous, the report said, because a person in such a hold “can lose consciousness in 10 to 15 seconds.”

The danger of chokeholds was made plain in 2004, in a New York City departmental training guide for patrol officers, said Candace S. McCoy, a professor of criminal justice at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

“Around the country, in places that permit them,” the guide said of chokeholds, “the police officers who have used them have not done so intending to kill or to cause serious injury — but they are deadly.”

Even today, there is disagreement in law enforcement circles about what constitutes a chokehold, and what might be a permissible restraint involving a suspect’s head or neck. In defending themselves from chokehold complaints, New York police officers have used various other terms in describing actions that they said were within the guidelines: a headlock, a “yoke hold,” a “face lock.”

Those taught the move decades ago said it was meant as a way of controlling a situation short of using deadly force. Vincent E. Henry, a retired officer, said he was instructed, as a cadet at the Police Academy, that chokeholds were “a strategy of last resort.”

“It was not something you did casually,” he said.

Taught correctly, Mr. Henry said, an officer would use his bicep and forearm to squeeze a suspect’s carotid arteries, causing that person to pass out.

That kind of tactic was clearly not what Officer Pantaleo, in his testimony to the grand jury on Staten Island, described using. He said he tried to topple Mr. Garner using a takedown move that officials have called a seatbelt hold.

The video of the encounter shows the officer starting out that way — with one arm under Mr. Garner’s armpit and another moving over the struggling man’s opposite shoulder.

But by the time Mr. Garner was face down on the pavement, Officer Pantaleo had his arm firmly around Mr. Garner’s neck as other officers piled on. Mr. Garner later died, though Mr. Pantaleo told grand jurors he never meant to hurt him.

The city medical examiner’s office attributed Mr. Garner’s death to a chokehold and chest compression, and listed his asthma, obesity and cardiovascular disease as contributing factors. The grand jury’s decision last month not to charge Officer Pantaleo prompted a wave of protests in which marchers invoked Mr. Garner’s last words to voice their outrage: “I can’t breathe.”

The Justice Department has begun a civil rights investigation into Mr. Garner’s death, and Mr. Bratton is weighing departmental discipline against Officer Pantaleo and other officers involved in the arrest. He is also overseeing a vast retraining of all officers that includes various compliance restraints.

At a breakfast speech to business leaders in Manhattan last month, Mr. Bratton showed slides that described several approved moves: the arm lock, the bar-hammer lock and the rear tackle.

For months the president of the union for city police officers, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, has said that Officer Pantaleo was not using a chokehold.

Mr. Bratton, who first said it appeared the officer had used one, has more recently suggested the officer may not have.

Ms. McCoy said that it did not matter what a hold was called; most city police departments “tell their officers not to use them,” she said.

The trouble, Mr. Messina said, was that the department had not given officers a comparable alternative. “It’s like telling you, don’t use your fork anymore,” he said. “But they don’t give you something else.”

A version of this article appears in print on January 13, 2015, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Despite Scrutiny, Police Chokeholds Persist.