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The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis led to protests. Those protests center on a demand for urgent police reform, including a ban on officers using chokeholds. NPR's Tim Mak examines the maneuver - what it is, why police use it and whether a ban would be effective.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: The tactic comes in many forms with many names. A chokehold restricts the airway when pressure is applied to the front of the neck. A stranglehold restricts blood flow to the brain when pressure is applied to the sides of the neck. Neck restraints are a broader term that refer to both.
LORENZO BOYD: The bottom line is that you're cutting off somebody's air supply and the blood flow to their brain.
MAK: Lorenzo Boyd is the director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven.
BOYD: And eventually, they will be incapacitated. They will faint, or they'll pass out. And then at that point, you can do whatever you want.
MAK: NPR reviewed policies on neck restraints in some of the nation's largest police departments and found that bans have not always been effective. While some police departments banned chokeholds, they might then allow their officers to use strangleholds. For example, the NYPD has banned chokeholds for almost three decades, but...
PAUL BUTLER: It's kind of like a rule in an employee handbook - don't use a chokehold.
MAK: That's former federal prosecutor and Georgetown law professor Paul Butler, who wrote the book "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." When New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board studied its use in 2014, it found hundreds of complaints a year alleging that cops used the technique and that the use of chokeholds at the time appeared to be rising.
BUTLER: Unless there is real accountability, we shouldn't expect those kinds of light bans to work.
MAK: Over the past 20 years, some of the biggest police departments in the country have instituted bans on chokeholds. The LAPD have had a ban on what's called the bar arm chokehold since 1982. And many of the nation's largest police departments, like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston, have similar policies.
And yet there is incident after incident where people have died over the past two decades when neck restraints were used in their arrest - one of the most notable cases, that of Eric Garner in New York six years ago, who repeated, I can't breathe 11 times before losing consciousness. But there are many others - James Thompson in Chicago; Allen Simpson in Dallas, Texas; Rodney Lynch, Gallup, N.M.; Dustin Boone in Las Vegas; Roger Owensby Jr. in Cincinnati, Ohio; Carl Glen Wheat in Amarillo, Texas; Gerald Arthur in New Orleans; Torris Harris in Chattanooga, Tenn. And following Floyd's death, chokehold bans are again a central topic of discussion.
GWEN CARR: And we want a federal law that - it will go around the country, and any time anyone uses a chokehold, they are immediately - immediately - locked up and charged.
MAK: That's Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, now an advocate for police reform. President Trump also weighed in, saying police should avoid using chokeholds but stopped short of fully supporting a ban. Meanwhile, the state of New York implemented a chokehold ban, taking the decades-long NYPD departmental ban and enshrining it into state law. And Congress is now weighing a national federal ban on neck restraints. But not everyone thinks they should be outlawed entirely.
MICHAEL SCHLOSSER: If done properly with the proper training and the proper continued training, I think it is a safe method to control somebody.
MAK: Michael Schlosser is the director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute. He prefers to focus on training rather than advocating for a national ban.
SCHLOSSER: Actually, sometimes if you can control somebody like that, a lot of times, you might have less injury rather than getting in an all-out fight, and people have a chance to have greater injury to the officer or to the arrestee.
MAK: And time and time again, police officers have returned to the neck restraint as a way to gain compliance. Richard Emery was the chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which reviewed the use of chokeholds in New York City.
RICHARD EMERY: It is the vulnerability of every human being to have the most important organ in their body easily affected and directly affected by constricting the neck. And therefore, unlike other parts of the body, it is the place where police officers go instinctively, automatically and even by virtue of their culture.
MAK: And that, fundamentally, is the challenge for lawmakers - when officers need to take violent action, how to reduce that instinct to go to that vital area of the body, the neck.
Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.
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