DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's zoom in now on Eric Garner's death on Staten Island. His encounter with police was captured on a cell phone.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Put your hands behind your back.
ERIC GARNER: I can't believe. I can breathe. I can't breathe.
GREENE: That is Eric Garner saying I can't breathe. It is generally said that he died as a result of a chokehold. But the New York City medical examiner's reports suggest it's more complicated. It describes Garner's death as being due to, quote, "compression of the neck" as well as, quote, "compression of the chest and his prone positioning during physical restraint by police." This matters because there are police trainers who think the maneuver popularly known as the chokehold is mislabeled, and it's now getting a bad rap. NPR's Martin Kaste covers police issues. He's been following this case. He's on the line with us. Martin, good morning.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: A chokehold is banned by the New York City Police Department. What exactly is that?
KASTE: The term chokehold is used very loosely to apply to two different things. What the New York Police Department bans is a hold that cuts off the air - that crushes windpipe in such a way that you can't breathe. But people also often use the term chokehold for a different kind of neck restraint sometimes called a vascular hold. These are holds where the arm comes around the neck in such a way that the crook of the arm is in front of the Adam's apple. So the Adam's apple's actually not being pushed in. You can still breathe, but the pressure's on the two sides of your neck. And the point there is to press down on the arteries leading to brain, briefly cutting off the flow of blood to your brain and causing the person to pass out for a few seconds - long enough for a police officer to cuff that person. This vascular hold is something that's actually formally trained. There's certification in it. And police officers who like this method say it's actually a very painless and often very safe way of subduing someone who's agitated.
GREENE: So, Martin, the New York City Police Department - what they explicitly ban is actually doing something to cut off the air.
KASTE: That's right. And what happened to Eric Garner looks kind of like that. The officer who applied the hold to Eric Garner has said that he wasn't even trying any kind of a chokehold - neither the vascular kind nor the kind that would block your breathing. But on the tape, it sure looks like a chokehold. He comes around from the side, and he's got the - his forearm right on top of the front of Eric Garner's throat, which sure looks like he's compressing the windpipe. And that's when you hear him saying, I can't breathe. So if the officer was trying to do the vascular kind of neck hold, he didn't do a very good job. It was botched. And the experts in that kind of hold would say it was a dangerous and just inexpert attempt to do so.
GREENE: OK. So, Martin, let's be clear here. Are police officers being trained to use holds like this that do not cut off breathing?
KASTE: Yes, they are being trained on this every day. There are companies dedicated to training officers in these vascular neck restraint techniques. What you find, though, is it tends to be smaller- or medium-sized departments that like to have this option. The big-city departments tend to shy away, especially since the '70s and '80s, when there was a series of deaths in custody of people who were on drugs who'd also been subjected to neck restraints. There was a backlash in some bigger cities. And there, they're shying away from anything that's called a chokehold. But in the smaller cities, you do see it.
GREENE: Well, so again we don't know what the officers were - were not trying to do with Eric Garner. But if these types of vascular holds can be botched and lead to someone's death, what is the argument for them today?
KASTE: The argument is that cops are desperate for options. They're facing an increasing number of people who are mentally ill or agitated, perhaps on drugs. And in those situations, a police officer much prefers to have some other options besides the pepper spray, the Taser or gun. In some situations, they argue, this kind of a sleeper hold, as they call it colloquially, is actually a safer way out than just plain wrestling with the guy.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Martin Kaste. Martin, thanks very much.
KASTE: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.