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The issue of police use of force has again become a major flashpoint, after a grand jury decided to not indict New York police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner as he was being taken into custody in July.
The incident was captured on video, on which Garner could be heard saying repeatedly, "I can't breathe." Those were his final words. The video of the encounter sparked an uproar, which has boiled over again with protests in New York and other cities, including Boston, after Wednesday's grand jury decision — which came a week after a Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury decided to not indict an officer in the shooting death an unarmed black teen.
With the Garner case, police use of chokeholds has now become a major topic of discussion.
In Massachusetts, training standards for law enforcement are established by the Municipal Police Training Committee (MPTC), an oversight body that also provides training programs. The MPTC said chokeholds and other similar holds are not part of their training procedures.
The Massachusetts State Police said something similar — that they do not use chokeholds or train recruits to use them.
"We have a very detailed use-of-force policy which outlines accepted tactics that may be used in a continuum of use of force," state police spokesman David Procopio said. "That is starting from the least serious to the most serious based on the demands or specific threats of a given situation."
Procopio said the use-of-force spectrum ranges from verbal commands to control techniques such as temporary restraints or pepper spray to hand-to-hand defensive tactics to lethal force — though officers do not have to use the range in progression and can instead employ "whatever level they deem fit based on the level of threat they are facing." The key here being that troopers "use only that force that is reasonable," Procopio said.
The Boston Police Department also said that it does not use or train officers to use chokeholds. The department also uses a force spectrum and has adopted a less-lethal force philosophy "to assist in the de-escalation of potentially violent situations." Boston police policy is to use "only that amount of force that is reasonably necessary to overcome resistance in making an arrest or subduing an attacker."
There was a 2009 case where Boston Police Officer David Williams was accused of using a chokehold on Michael O'Brien. To be clear, there was no death in that case. However, a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed and the city agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle it in 2012.
Here's how civil rights attorney Howard Friedman, who represented O'Brien, described the case:
The officer denied using a chokehold and it was only based on other evidence when his partner indicated that indeed he saw Officer Williams' forearm around my client's neck that it became clear that my client was in fact telling the truth and that he had been choked.
BPD terminated Williams, but an arbitrator ruled he should get his job back. The department appealed that decision to the Superior Court and Williams is not currently working there, according the BPD spokesman Lt. Michael McCarthy. The appeals case is ongoing.
There are some police trainers who believe chokeholds are getting mislabeled — and mistaken for another similar-looking maneuver — as NPR's Martin Kaste reports:
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.
That type of hold is also referred to as a "sleeper hold." It tends to be used in smaller- or medium-sized police departments, while police in larger cities tend not to use it due to high incidents of people dying in custody in the 1970s and '80s, according to Kaste. The Boston Police Department and state police said they do not use this type of hold either.
"We do not train members to use any kind of hold that would affect a person's ability to breath or cause them to lose consciousness through the application of pressure," Procopio, the state police spokesman, said.
Wayne Sampson, the executive director of the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association, said chokeholds were an acceptable method in the 1970s and '80s and were part of training in the state, but were done away with a long time ago.
"We don’t use them, we don't condone them, and it's not part of a police officer's training," Sampson said.
In the Garner case, video of the incident shows Pantaleo's forearm on Garner's throat and the New York City medical examiner listed "compression of neck" (i.e. a chokehold) as the cause of death. The death was ruled a homicide. That report also cited "compression of the chest" and preexisting medical conditions, including asthma, as contributing causes of Garner's death. It's important to note too that chokeholds have been banned under New York Police Department policy since the early 1990s.
Friedman, the local civil rights attorney, said cases of chokehold deaths at the hands of police are not as common now as they once were and that he usually sees them being used by police officers to prevent people from swallowing drugs — this is something that the Boston Police Department explicitly bans in its policies. The department policy says, "as a result of the increased potential for injury, officers shall refrain from utilizing restraint techniques that include squeezing the trachea, windpipe, or throat area to stop a subject from ingesting any controlled substance."
Friedman said chokeholds should be considered a form of deadly force and officers should be trained to view it as such.
"This myth that if a person says, 'I can't breathe,' [then] they are breathing so you can keep applying pressure to them certainly needs to be shattered," Friedman said.
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