The May 25 death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes has prompted renewed efforts nationwide to ban such techniques. In the recent past, similar efforts to end “chokeholds” often proved ineffective.
- A “chokehold” is one type of potentially deadly neck restraint.
The term “chokehold” is sometimes used as a catch-all phrase for any forcible neck restraint. But police usually distinguish between a chokehold and a “stranglehold.” Strangeholds (also called sleeper holds or carotid restraints) temporarily block blood flow to the brain and are meant to render a subject unconscious for a time. Chokeholds (also called airway holds) restrict breathing by putting pressure on the windpipe. Both techniques sometimes turn deadly in police arrests.
- Several large police departments tried to bar chokeholds long before Floyd’s death.
The Los Angeles Police Department banned what it called the “bar-arm chokehold” in 1982. The New York Police Department banned chokeholds in November 1993 (except when an officer's life was in danger). The Chicago Police Department did the same in May 2012, and Philadelphia and Houston adopted similar policies. Still, a 2013 Justice Department survey found that of police departments serving more than a million people, 43 percent allowed neck restraints of some kind.
- “Bans” on neck restraints were frequently ignored.
An NPR review of bans on neck restraints in some of the nation's largest police departments “found them largely ineffective and subject to lax enforcement.” And when chokeholds specifically were banned, “a variation on the neck restraint was often permitted instead.” Authorities in many cities say the use of neck restraints is deeply ingrained among some officers, and they have typically avoided serious punishments for using them.
- Many U.S. cities are now taking (or weighing) steps against police neck restraints.
Raleigh, Houston and Minneapolis are among the cities that, in the wake of Floyd’s death, have moved to eliminate police use of chokeholds and strangleholds. Several others are considering such moves. Reformers urge departments to revise police training to place greater emphasis on de-escalating tension and violence during arrests.
- Partisan differences may hinder congressional action on policing.
Following Floyd’s death, congressional Democrats crafted legislation that would ban chokeholds by police officers. Republican lawmakers are backing a bill that would not ban chokeholds but would encourage their disuse by withholding federal grants from departments that don't ban chokeholds themselves. On June 22, Senate Democrats said they might block the GOP bill if it is not toughened.