Unlocking the Confusion Around Chokeholds

Chokeholds are some of the most controversial and effective techniques that officers can use to end attacks.


As a result of the death of Eric Garner in 2014 during an encounter with police officers, and the scrutiny that ensued, there has been significant controversy over police officers using chokeholds when attempting to detain suspects. After unlawfully selling cigarettes, Garner, an African-American man, died in Staten Island during an attempted arrest by New York City police officers on July 17, 2014. Video footage of the arrest showed the arm of Officer Daniel Pantaleo on Garner's neck prior to the latter's death, which occurred during the scuffle. On December 3 of that same year, a grand jury elected not to indict Pantaleo, and after investigation, the FBI agreed with this decision.

The decision not to indict Pantaleo raised great public outrage and prompted demonstrations across the United States, especially in the African-American community. This put a lot of pressure on legislators to "do something" to remedy what many believed was the murder of an African-American man by a police officer. State and federal legislators began to introduce and enact state and federal laws specific to the use of chokeholds by police officers. Previously, something as specific as a chokehold or neck restraint would be regulated through departmental policy and procedures, and the proper use of these techniques would be supported through rigorous training. However, agencies and officers are now afraid to put an arm around the neck of an active resister or aggressive assailant, and using such a technique is reserved for deadly force situations alone. As a result, it is important to define the term "chokehold" more precisely, in order to comprehend that it is a broad term that refers to a variety of actions. Only then can we define the use, benefits, and dangers of the chokehold.

There is much confusion surrounding what exactly a chokehold entails, in part because of its expansive meaning, and as such I can understand the lack of comprehension to a certain extent.

There are so many terms used to convey the act of grabbing someone around the neck, and multiple methods involved in the performance of this maneuver. Terms from both martial arts and police practice include: rear naked choke, wind choke, air choke, tracheal choke, true choke, push choke, choke hold, vascular neck restraint, lateral vascular neck restraint, blood choke, bilateral carotid compression, strangle hold, and sleeper hold. As police officers, we have all encountered some if not all of these terms, and too many people, especially civilians, lump them all into one category: the chokehold. To try to simplify things, I will break this down into two categories, using the terms "air choke" and "blood choke." The two are very different, and while the blood choke is relatively safe, the air choke is considerably more dangerous.

Air Choke

The air choke is performed when an officer's forearm places pressure on the front of an assailant's neck/throat area, and it is also known as the tracheal choke, true choke, wind choke, and push choke. The purpose of the choke is to restrict air to the arrestee, and as such if the procedure is applied for a certain length of time, death can ensue. Another risk is that this choke can inflict damage on the upper airway, including the trachea, larynx, and hyoid bone, which can also result in the death of the assailant.

In Tennessee v. Garner the U.S. Supreme Court held that under the Fourth Amendment, police officers need to have probable cause to believe there is an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to the officer or someone else to justify the use of deadly force. As a result, I would recommend that this choke only be used against a deadly force assailant. A deadly force assailant can be defined as one whose actions are likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the officer or someone else.

Blood Choke

A blood choke involves the use of an officer's arm to apply pressure to one or both sides of an assailant's neck. This choke involves compressing the arteries and/or the jugular veins, which restricts blood flow and thus oxygen to the brain. Other names for the blood choke include rear naked choke, vascular neck restraint, lateral vascular neck restraint, bilateral carotid compression, strangle hold, and sleeper hold.

The blood choke is much safer than the air choke, but you need training to learn how to do it properly.The blood choke is much safer than the air choke, but you need training to learn how to do it properly.Photo: Michael Schlosser

During a blood choke, the front of the assailant's neck is left open for breathing, and the technique is therefore distinct from the air choke. Officers can learn to apply this technique safely through proper training that teaches them to position themselves behind the assailant, leading to very little risk to the arrestee. The most likely consequences of the blood choke include an assailant's immediate compliance or loss of consciousness. Recognizing the sudden onset of the latter is important, as despite being unconscious the assailant could still be moving with eyes open, or could be rigid. Once the blood choke is terminated, consciousness usually returns within 5-20 seconds. Many experts argue that this technique is less injurious than a knockout punch. There is very little strength required to apply this technique, making it a useful tool for an officer who is smaller or weaker than the assailant.

The blood choke is recommended for active resisters and aggressive assailants, but as with all techniques and tactics, the officer must use reasonable force as specified by Graham v. Connor. In Graham, the Supreme Court ruled use of force by a police officer is based on an objective reasonableness standard, the totality of the circumstances, and the officer's perception at that moment. The Court ruled that officers cannot be judged using hindsight because officers often have to make split-second decisions.

Training and Education

If you are going to use a chokehold, you need proper training and need to know if it is permitted by policy. Proper training includes recognizing unconsciousness, so that chokes are not applied any longer than necessary, especially the air choke. Further, it is vital that officers understand that certain members of the population are at higher risk of incurring injury or death as a result of a chokehold. Such individuals include those with cardiac disorders and younger people whose central nervous systems have not completely developed.

Continuing training is necessary in order to ensure that officers are up-to-date with the latest knowledge about chokeholds, and to help them maintain their familiarity with performing them. Such education needs to include the anatomy of the neck, medical issues, necessary precautions, and proper application. Also, it is essential that officers receive training on reviving an assailant who has fallen unconscious. Such skills should be learned from expert trainers, and not just from an article, as both practice and theory are necessary in order to master the safe use of a chokehold.

Both the air choke and blood choke require initial and continued training, as it is vital that officers understand possible medical issues, necessary precautions, the anatomy of the neck, and proper application before attempting to perform such techniques.

The purpose of this article, it should be strongly stressed, was not to describe and define chokes to the point where readers feel comfortable using these techniques, but rather to clarify some of the confusion involving chokeholds.

From here, readers should seek appropriate training in order to practice such maneuvers in a safe environment, before attempting to use them in the field. Importantly, officers should follow their state laws and their departmental policies and procedures involving such techniques, and train as much as possible.

Dr. Michael Schlosser, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute, and the Institute's lead control and arrest tactics instructor. He retired from the Rantoul (IL) Police Department as a lieutenant.

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