New York Death Reignites Decades-Old Debate Over Neck Restraints
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today is the funeral of Eric Garner. He's the New Yorker who died last week, shortly after being wrestled to the ground by police. The case has stirred up considerable anger in the city and yesterday Police Commissioner William Bratton pledged a wide ranging review of officer training.
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WILLIAM BRATTON: How do we train our officers for a takedown? How do we train them to use the various levels of force that they're authorized to use?
MONTAGNE: Garner's arrest was caught on video. And there's been a lot of attention over how he was restrained - using what looks like a choke hold, which is banned by the NYPD. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on why many police trainers argue that choke holds are relatively safe and should be used more.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The first thing to say here is that police trainers hate the word choke hold. They prefer a term like lateral vascular neck restraint.
MISSY O'LINN: The application of a neck restraint when properly trained, properly used and properly executed is a very low-risk, low-injury use of force.
KASTE: Missy O'Linn is a former cop and self-defense trainer. Now she's a lawyer who defends cops in court. She says the word choke hold implies pressure on the windpipe, but a neck restraint works differently. The officer puts his arm around your neck in a V, putting pressure on the sides of your neck and on the arteries that go to your brain.
O'LINN: When I apply pressure to the sides of your neck, I cause you to lose consciousness. And we're able to restrain you easily and then you come back to consciousness in handcuffs. And the battle is over.
KASTE: Cops used to call it the sleeper hold, back when they felt freer to borrow vocabulary of All Star Wrestling. But in the early 1980s, neck restraints fell out of favor. There were a number of in-custody deaths - not necessarily caused by neck restraints, but associated with them. Retired Los Angeles police captain, Greg Meyer, remembers how public sentiment turned.
GREG MEYER: Because it was on the front page, because people kept pushing - do away with the choke hold, do away with the choke hold. The politicians finally caved in and ordered the police department to do away with the neck restraint holds. So on May 12, 1982 we did.
KASTE: Meyer says that caused a new problem.
MEYER: Now you have a big gap in the use of force process. What are you going to fill that with? Well it got filled with the night stick.
KASTE: And in later years, that gap was full of pepper spray and the Taser. But now a growing number of police departments are bringing the neck restraint back, especially medium-sized departments in the West. The neck hold is seen as especially useful for subduing people who are drunk, on drugs or combative. And neck restraints are painless in theory. In Las Vegas, lawyer Derek Connor says the reality is not so nice. He represents two men who are suing Las Vegas police for excessive force.
DEREK CONNOR: Both of my clients that were placed in this maneuver experienced extreme choking sensation. You know, they said that their airway was completely cut off. They were unable to breathe.
KASTE: John Peters is an expert in preventing deaths in custody. He says in a struggle, there is a risk that an officer will apply the neck restraint incorrectly - accidentally cutting off a person's air.
JOHN PETERS: Other times the application of the choke may be performed correctly, but the person may have drugs on board or may have other medical conditions unknown to the officer and that may, in fact, trigger some type of a medical emergency, as well.
KASTE: In the New York case, for instance, Eric Garner is reported to have suffered from asthma, though the medical examiner has yet to determine a cause of death. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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