New York Court Ruling on "Chokeholds" Reignites Police Training Debate

The New York State Supreme Court has ruled a state law banning "chokeholds" may take now effect, potentially permanently removing that tactic from an officer's available inventory of arrest-and-control techniques.

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Late last month, the New York State Supreme Court's appeals court ruled a state law prohibiting "chokeholds" may take now effect, potentially removing—permanently—that tactic from an officer's available inventory of arrest-and-control techniques.

According to CBS News, the court's decision last month reversed a lower court ruling in June 2021 that deemed the so-called "diaphragm law" to be "unnecessarily vague."

The section of code in question—§ 10-181 Unlawful methods of restraint—says that "no person shall restrain an individual in a manner that restricts the flow of air or blood by compressing the windpipe or the carotid arteries on each side of the neck, or sitting, kneeling, or standing on the chest or back in a manner that compresses the diaphragm, in the course of effecting or attempting to effect an arrest."

In issuing the recent ruling, the court said that the law—passed in 2020 following the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis—was less strict than NYPD's own training and that the agency already prohibits "any sitting, kneeling, or standing on an individual's torso regardless of the effect."

Following the ruling, Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch released a statement saying, "This ill-conceived law makes it virtually impossible for police officers to safely and legally take violent criminals into custody—the very job that New Yorkers are urgently asking us to do."

The question remains, then, what can (and what cannot) officers do to restrain combative, resistive subjects?

Words (and Definitions) Matter

It's important to recognize the difference between what is commonly called a "chokehold," which places pressure on the front of the neck and dangerously decreases or stops the flow of oxygen, and a carotid/vascular restraint, which diminishes blood flow to the brain, rendering the person unconscious for about five seconds.

To an untrained eye, these two actions look almost identical, but they are worlds apart in terms of how safe they are to perform because of the direction of the pressure.

Anyone who has seen even one ridiculous B-movie about gangsters, bad guys, hooligans, ruffians, or other "nefarious actors" has seen some depiction of the former.

Anyone who has seen even one full broadcast of a UFC (Ultimate Fighting Challenge) fight card has probably seen a real-life demonstration of the latter.

Leaving bad Hollywood film fiction aside, the most common law enforcement use of a neck restraint is the Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint (LVNR), a registered trademark of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

The LVMPD says in its policy that the LVNR is a "a control technique applied to the sides of the neck, using a combination of physiological factors to restrict blood flow to the brain which may cause the subject to lose consciousness."

Las Vegas Metro's policy further states that after the LVNR has been used on a subject, "sworn MPD employees shall keep them under close observation until they are released to medical or other law enforcement personnel."

There are countless incidences of the LVNR being used safely in the field by officers across the country, with not a single reported death in more than four decades since its introduction.

All Comes Down to Training

In the end, it all comes down to training. If an officer is using a technique outside the scope of an agency's policy and/or training, bad things tend to happen.

It merits mention that in the abovementioned death of George Floyd, the officer's knee to the back of the subject's neck for more than nine minutes was outside of the policy and training. Indeed, at trial, a Minneapolis Police Department use-of-force instructor said, "We tell officers to stay away from the neck when possible."

Whether or not an agency continues to use some form of carotid/vascular restraint is a matter still left to the shifting landscape of legal precedent and resultant policy. Whatever the outcome of those machinations, every trainer must ensure that each officer in their charge will then act accordingly.

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