Into Police Chokeholds
Trymaine Lee: A warning: There are descriptions of violence in this episode. July 17, 2014, almost six years ago now, it probably started off as a pretty normal summer day for Eric Garner. Garner was dressed in a gray T-shirt and tan cargo shorts, trying to figure out a good place to eat lunch with his friend when the police rolled out. His friend began filming.
Eric Garner: Are you serious?
Lee: Outside of a Staten Island beauty supply store, the cops accused Garner of selling loosies, single untaxed cigarettes.
Garner: I didn't sell anything. I did nothing. We sittin' here the whole time mindin' our business.
Lee: The encounter escalated.
Archival Recording: Let go.
Lee: One officer reached up from behind Garner, who stood at 6'2" tall, put his arm around his neck, and pulled him to the ground. Garner cried out.
Garner: I can't breathe. I can't breathe.
Lee: "I can't breathe." Garner said those words 11 times before his death. It became a rallying cry at protests.
Protester: I can't breathe. I can't breathe.
Lee: As activists denounced the police killing of Black people year after year in city after city.
Protesters: Eric Garner. Eric Garner--
Lee: And then, on Memorial Day of this year, those words echoed once again.
George Floyd: I can't breathe. Pleas, your knee on my deck. I can't breathe (UNINTEL).
Lee: George Floyd said he couldn't breathe more than 20 times, pressed under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. A transcript of the body cam footage made public just days ago revealed how the officers responded to his pleas. One said, "Relax." "You're fine," said another. One officer instructed him, quote, "Deep breath."
There are other names in other cities. A 2013 Justice Department survey found that of police departments that serve more than 1 million people, 43% allow a neck restraint of some kind. There are no national stats telling us how often these holds, sanctioned or not, end in death. But in the age of cell phone video, we now see it. All violent death, all Black death at the hands of the people tasked to protect and serve is painful to watch. But watching someone get the air choked out of them, that's haunting.
Robert Branch: He kept choking me and just kept choking me. And he would not let me go. And I feel like that I'm about to just die.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, we're telling the story of the police chokehold, when it's used, why it's used, and whether it has a future in modern American policing. There are those who say it's a necessary tool for officers.
Ed Obayashi: If they're wrestling around on the ground and he or she winds up with the arm around the person's neck, it's now become a life-and-death struggle, the application of that carotid would be ruled justified.
Lee: And those who are argue, "Nah, it's time for it to end."
Paul Butler: I think that that would be an important symbol that Black lives matter.
Lee: Robert Branch has seen the videos, the Eric Garners, the George Floyds, but he rarely makes it all the way through.
Branch: When I see videos, like one second, I end up just cuttin' off the video because it reminds me of the situation that I went through. And I just don't wanna think about that.
Lee: In the spring of 2015, a year after Eric Garner was killed, Robert had his own run-in with an officer in San Diego, California. He was 28 years old, working as a security guard, and was on his way to visit the woman he was dating.
Branch: And I got in the car, started to head to her place. So as I'm getting on the freeway, as I'm merging over, there was a vehicle in front of me that was merging over and he got into the middle lane. And next thing you know, I see the vehicle merging over, almost hitting my vehicle. And it made me go into the dirt gravel.
Lee: Robert fears the situation could be a case of road rage.
Branch: So I end up just steppin' on the gas and just drivin' really fast.
Lee: Nine miles down the road, Robert hears a rattling in his trunk, so he decides to pull off the freeway and down a side street to check it out.
Branch: As I'm doing that, there's this Ford Fusion that was driving past me smiling, and that was the same vehicle that I almost had a collision in.
Lee: The car pulls up behind Robert's car, and a white middle-aged man gets out. He says he's from the San Diego Sheriff's Department, but he's just wearing a white polo shirt. No gun, no uniform.
Branch: Something inside of me just kept saying, "Something is not right. It's just something don't feel right." You know, he gets out the car, saying he's from San Diego Sheriff's Department, but you don't have a marked vehicle. You don't have no lights in your vehicle. You don't have anything to indicate that you are a officer.
Even on his self, it doesn't indicate anything. You're pullin' out your wallet and showing me a badge that I could get off on Amazon. You know, you don't know who this person is. It could be anybody. Something was telling me that I need to record. So I grabbed my ID and then I grabbed my phone.
Lee: You're about to hear Robert's recording from that day.
Branch: And then I started videotaping and showin' my location.
Branch (video): I'm in La Mesa right now. You see this officer right now? Right now, he does not have his lights on.
Sheriff Officer: You are being detained--
Branch (video): You cannot touch me. You cannot touch me.
Sheriff Officer: Sit down.
Branch (video): Sir, can you call the police, sir--
Sheriff Officer: Sit down.
Lee: The situation almost immediately escalates.
Branch (video): You cannot touch me--
Sheriff Officer: You're under arrest.
Branch (video): You cannot touch me. You see this? You cannot touch me.
Branch: He ended up grabbing my shirt, turning me around, taking my arm, placing it behind my back. And then next thing you know, a arm goes around my neck.
Branch (video): You cannot touch me. (CHOKING) Cannot touch me.
Branch: He started to choke me and dragging my body from the driver's side to the middle of my vehicle. And that's when I end up passing out.
Lee: In this moment, what started off as a incident on the highway, now you're in the grip of this guy. Was there a moment when you actually thought, you know, "This might be the end for me"?
Branch: I did. I really did. I felt like I was gone for, like, maybe like 30 minutes or more. I seen, it was like a bright white light when I passed out. And then I woke up, and then he was standing over me. And I started to panic, and then I tried to get away from him. As I'm tryin' to do that, he keeps grabbing me and he puts me back into a chokehold--
Sheriff Officer: Calm down--
Branch (video): --leave me on the ground. That (UNINTEL) is abuse. Right now, you're abusing me right now.
Branch: We end up falling to the ground, and that's when I thought that was it.
Branch (video): I love my mom. I love my mom.
Branch: My last words pretty much was saying, "Tell my mom I love her." (SIRENS) And I could hear the sirens in the background coming. And I was just hoping for anybody to come. It doesn't really matter. I was just hoping if the cops could hurry up and get there. And then once the cops got there, I turned around and placed my hands behind my back and they handcuffed me. And that was a big relief.
Lee: For the cops to come and handcuff you was actually a relief.
Branch: Correct. Because I just didn't know this guy. And I was tired. I was exhausted. And I didn't care who, a bystander, anybody to just come and get this guy off me. I just wanted to get away from him.
Lee: You know, I watched the video of the incident, and there's something at once so violent about it, seeing you dragged to the ground. But then he had this composure about him that was kind of startling.
Branch: It was like he was not caring whatsoever. It was just like, "I'm in charge. You're gonna listen to what I have to say kinda thing." That's how I feel.
Lee: It turns out the man was an officer, a San Diego County Sheriff's Department detective. Robert was hospitalized for the injuries sustained in his chokehold and was charged with reckless driving and resisting arrest. Those charges were later dropped and Robert got to walk away. There are plenty of Black men who don't.
Butler: I wouldn't trust a doctor or a nurse to perform this procedure, much less a cop who is not a trained medical professional.
Lee: Paul Butler is a professor at Georgetown Law School. He's a former prosecutor, and he literally wrote the book on chokeholds. It's called Chokehold: Policing Black Men.
Butler: A chokehold is a maneuver in which a person's neck is tightly gripped in a way that restrains breathing. There are two types. An air choke compresses the upper airway. It prevents oxygen from reaching the lungs. A blood choke compresses the arteries and it prevents blood from reaching the brain. Both are extremely risky procedures that can lead to death if they're done too long or improperly. You die of a heart attack or of asphyxiation.
Lee: Do we have any sense of how routine the chokehold is used across America?
Butler: In some jurisdictions, we have some information, usually because of court cases in which departments have been required to keep that information often as a result of a proven history of race discrimination. And there's no national requirements for the 18,000 police departments in the United States to report when they use force, including deadly force, and who they use it against. So we know from the data that we have from various cities that Black people, African American people, Native people are much more likely to be victims of police violence than white people.
Lee: When you think back through time, was there a moment when this emerged as a, you know, preferred technique by police or a moment when we started to realize that police were using this often?
Butler: I can't really think of a moment. I think some people may have thought that that Radio Raheem scene in Do the Right Thing was hyperbole, it was something in a movie. And when I say "some people might have thought that," I mean some white people might have thought that.
Archival Recording: Get his arm. Get his arm.
Archival Recording: Gary, that's enough. Gary, that's enough, man. Gary, that's enough.
Lee: At the end of Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing, an officer uses a billy club to choke Radio Raheem, lifting him off the ground. The camera cuts to Raheem's feet as they twitch in the air, then go limp. Spike Lee modeled the death off of a high-profile 1983 police killing of aspiring Black artist Michael Stewart in New York City.
Archival Recording: 25-year-old Michael Stewart was beaten by transit police. Stewart died at Bellevue yesterday, two weeks after he arrived there in a coma following his arrest for spray painting graffiti in a subway station.
Lee: Before Stewart, there was another police chokehold case that garnered national attention in the city of Los Angeles.
Archival Recording: The Supreme Court today heard arguments in a case involving the right of Los Angeles Police to use chokeholds. In question is a controversial choke by a policeman, placing his arms around a suspect's neck and blocking the main artery to the brain.
Lee: In 1976, 24-year-old Adolph Lyons was pulled over for a broken taillight. Lyons, who was Black, was choked into unconsciousness by the LAPD before waking up covered in his own urine and feces. He was issued a citation for the taillight and sent on his way. Lyons brought a lawsuit against the city seeking compensation for his injuries and an injunction that would stop the LAPD from using chokeholds except in certain situations. The challenge went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Butler: This cannot be constitutional. He says the police cannot be allowed to operate like this.
Lee: But in a 5-4 decision, the court ruled against Adolph Lyons, saying he could not obtain an injunction unless he could show that he was personally likely to be choked by a Los Angeles Police officer in the future.
Butler: Justice Marshall, Thurgood Marshall, first African American on the Supreme Court, he dissents. And he says that what happened to Mr. Lyons was wrong and it was unconstitutional. Mr. Lyons tells the court that 16 people had died in custody after the cops put them in a chokehold and 12 of those were African American men. That meant something to Justice Marshall but didn't seem to mean anything to the other members of the Supreme Court.
Lee: Those 16 chokehold deaths, 12 of them Black men, occurred between 1975 and 1983, the year the Supreme Court ruled in City of Los Angeles versus Lyons. A year earlier, in 1982, facing pressure to reform, LAPD chief Daryl Gates attributed the disproportionate Black deaths by chokehold to physiology.
Archival Recording: Police chief Daryl Gates prompted new charges of racism this week when he tried to explain why more chokehold victims America Black. Gates said, "We may be finding that in some Blacks when it is applied the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people."
Butler: The chokehold represents the experience of Black men in this country, that the way that police respond to us, the way that the society responds to us is with fear and suspicion. If you want to understand why our criminal justice process is so messed up, it's all about African American men. The government response, the social response to us is the reason why.
Lee: Coming up, a California police officer makes the case for why he believes some neck restraints are necessary. And we'll take a look at efforts to reform the practice in the wake of George Floyd's killing. We'll be right back.
Obayashi: Officers are taught from day one in the academy that they're going home at the end of their shift. And it sometimes has had a lasting hypnotic effect where they feel, "Okay, you know, I don't care. I'm goin' home."
Lee: Ed Obayashi is a deputy sheriff in Plumas County, California.
Obayashi: Are there officers that think that way, that gets to a point where they're always on high alert? Yes.
Lee: He's been an officer for almost three decades and at this point in his career spends much of his time training and advising law enforcement agencies as a use-of-force expert. Like Paul Butler, Ed draws attention to the difference between the kinds of neck restraints police use, cutting off the airway versus cutting off the blood supply.
Obayashi: The carotid restraint is not designed or intended to restrict the airflow of an individual. Rather, it is to restrict the carotid artery blood flow on either side of the neck to render an individual unconscious without suffocating him. We don't train our officers to suffocate people. That's deadly force. Can you imagine myself standing in front of a group of officers and saying, "Okay, guys and girls, we're gonna train today how to suffocate and choke you out"?
Lee: What circumstances are police officers trained to use this tactic? Like, when is it appropriate, and how are they taught that?
Obayashi: A carotid restraint will not be applied unless it's the last option that an officer has short of employing his firearm. Usually, it's a situation where it's become a hands-on situation, which, by the way, law enforcement is trained to avoid. 'Cause once it gets to that point, then, as you can imagine and appreciate, then it's fisticuffs, it's scratching, it's biting, it's tearing clothes, pulling hair. The likelihood of injuries, you know, resulting from those hand-to-hand situations is much more than, say, a Taser application or pepper spray.
Lee: Some people would say we're parsing here, saying obviously suffocating someone where they can't breathe is one thing, but also cutting off someone's blood circulation to the point where they pass out is also, you know, maybe a bridge too far for a lot of people.
Obayashi: Yes. And I understand that. My point is this: Despite what we've all seen over the past month, the application at least in California of carotid restraints is extremely rare. In a three-year reporting period, 2016 through 2018, mandatory reporting of carotid restraint holds from all law enforcement agencies in California which result in serious injury, there were less than 100 reported incidents across California. Now, you're talking close to 80,000-plus officers and deputy sheriffs and almost close to 700 law enforcement agencies. So the use of that hold, the carotid restraint, is extremely rare.
Lee: Ed says training is key.
Obayashi: That officer must be trained, certified trained, successfully pass the course, and have a required period of training to make sure that he or she has maintained proficiency in this application because it's inherently dangerous. You are going to be required as part of your training before you're left alone that you demonstrate a proficiency in every type of use of force application. You're going to qualify with your taser, obviously your firearm. And the same applies to the carotid restraint.
Lee: And so, Ed, have you ever had to apply a carotid restraint in your career?
Obayashi: Yes, I have. I want to say almost maybe 20 years ago. I was by myself on patrol. And actually it was a traffic stop. And I won't go into all the details, but it just became very confrontational. And then he reached for something behind, and I grabbed his arm, I said, you know, "Don't put your arm behind your back, whatever you're going for."
I was in position where I was able to just say, "Okay, stop there. Turn around." And then, you know, he dragged me, we both went to the ground, and the fight was on basically. And I was able to get into position where, you know, I was able to put him in a carotid hold. In my career, maybe I've applied it maybe, gosh, I want to say probably less than two or three times.
Lee: You know, I could imagine why, you know, we call it, like, less lethal force, right? People still die from Tasers. Clearly, people still die from having cops', you know, arms around their necks. But to that point, I wonder what that fine line is like because a carotid restraint is one thing but we've seen time and again people saying, "I can't breathe," literally being killed and watching the life leave them, right?
Lee: In the heat of the moment, obviously things can get dangerous out there. But how easy is it to slip from a carotid restraint where you're puttin' pressure on the arteries on the side to now their windpipe is being crushed?
Obayashi: Yes, good question. It's very easy in many instances for that carotid restraint to become inadvertently a stranglehold or a chokehold. In California when an individual says, "I can't breathe," and that is a specific phrase that's used in case law in California, that an officer must take that plea seriously and if feasible ensure that the individual can breathe.
So that is part of our training. You don't ignore that plea. You know, I always hear officers tell me, "Well, Ed, if he can talk, he can breathe." And I have to explain the physiological functions and dispel that myth, why the individual truly cannot breathe even if he can talk.
Lee: When you think about the neck restraints, there's something that seems so aggressive. And I wonder, thinking about how these restraints are employed on Black and brown and marginalized people, the way we're policed different, do you think that there is a fear of Black people, that the way you respond is because there is this fear of these people?
Obayashi: You know, I think it would be fair to say that, and I'll tell you why. I teach racial profiling for the state for officers. And what I try to impart on the officers is that I recognize that there's implicit bias. What I ask officers to do is at least when you approach these situations, given the time, at least ask yourself whether or not whatever you're feeling is motivated by race.
"Why am I making this traffic stop? Is it because he's Black or because she's Hispanic?" I want them to think about it. Because the more I can get them to think about it, I think that is the best approach to getting officers to understand, "All right. Maybe I'm overreacting here. Maybe it is motivated by race. Let me take a deep breath and step back on this one."
Lee: Deadly chokeholds at the hands of police have been dealt with differently across the country. Consequences have ranged from a suspension to second-degree murder charges, as in the case of the officer who killed George Floyd. But in California, carotid restraints, those blood chokes, may be soon be off limits entirely to officers.
Earlier this month, California governor Gavin Newsom said he would sign an outright ban on carotid restraints if a bill comes across his desk. At the federal level, in the weeks since George Floyd's killing, the House passed a bill that would effectively require police departments to end the use of neck restraints. And last month, President Trump said that federal dollars for policing would prioritize departments that were taking steps to minimize the use of force.
Donald Trump: As part of this new credentialing process, chokeholds will be banned, except if an officer's life is at risk.
Lee: A number of cities and states have passed bans in recent weeks, including New York State, along with Minneapolis, Denver, Dallas, Houston, and Washington, D.C. Ed told me that trying to eliminate the chokehold tactic in big cities where officers can easily call for backup is one thing, but it'd be hard to do in sparsely populated areas where an officer might be alone and therefore need to use more force.
Obayashi: Let's say you have this lone deputy or lone officer out in the middle of nowhere by himself, herself with backup literally 15 minutes away, half an hour away and they confront an individual where it becomes hands on. Then that deputy is gonna be authorized and entitled to use whatever force options are necessary under the circumstances.
Lee: What if there's a federal ban on chokeholds? Do you think that that's enforceable, that departments across the country would comply with that given, as you say, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do?
Obayashi: There's no way that the application would be banned completely. Let's say I'm on a plane. And we've seen these incidents more often than once where some passenger goes crazy, berserk on the plane and they're in midair, and everybody has to tackle him. Well, I think under those circumstances a carotid would be more than reasonable to apply. You're not gonna shoot the individual. You don't want to pepper spray the individual 'cause it's gonna contaminate the whole department.
If I'm an officer, I mean, you've got to assume everybody else is a civilian, yeah, am I gonna put him in a chokehold if I can if it's feasible? Yes. And that would be justified. And I think everyone on that plane would all agree. In these life-and-death situations no department's gonna say, "Hey, if your life's in danger, you can go ahead and shoot the individual but you can't use the carotid restraint." No, you know, that makes no sense.
Lee: I asked Paul Butler the same question, "Should chokeholds be banned, and would a federal ban be enforceable?"
Butler: I think that it would be an important symbol of this moment in racial justice. As a practical matter, I don't know if it would make a difference. People say the police are gonna do what they want to do. But the law is expressive. And I think that if each one of the 18,000 police departments told their officers, "You cannot put your hands or knees on another human being's neck because that creates a risk that you will kill them. So that's just something you don't do," I think that that would be an important symbol that Black lives matter.
Lee: But as Paul pointed out, chokeholds were already against NYPD policy when Eric Garner was killed.
Butler: At the time that the police put Mr. Garner in that chokehold, it was illegal in the way that if you violate something in the employee handbook that's illegal. This new law in New York now makes it a crime for an officer to engage in aggravated strangulation. That means it's up to prosecutors to bring cases. And we'll have to see. There hasn't been a whole lot of success with prosecutors charging officers with crimes involving violence in the line of duty.
Lee: On June 1st of this year, San Diego Police chief David Nisleit announced a ban on carotid restraints in the wake of George Floyd's death.
David Nisleit: I'm angry. I can tell you all the officers from our department are angry. I can tell you my chiefs are angry about what we saw, what occurred in Minneapolis and the death of Mr. Floyd. And so effective immediately, I put out to all my members that we are stopping the use of the carotid restraint. Department order will either go out today or tomorrow, but I did put out a message to all my troops that it stops immediately.
Branch: It is a relief, but it's stressful and upsetting.
Lee: The news was bittersweet for Robert Branch, who was choked unconscious by a county sheriff in San Diego five years ago. At the time, Robert filed an excessive force lawsuit against the county. The county didn't admit any wrongdoing, but Robert was awarded a $137,000 settlement.
Branch: Everything was off my chest. Finally go back to my normal self. It was a lot. It was so much relief off me.
Lee: Looking forward, Robert says he wants broader reforms to hopefully help stop what happened to him from happening to other people. But mostly, he just wants to move on. From what you understand, whatever happened to the police officer that choked you that day?
Branch: So pretty much I found out it was either he gets fired or take his retirement. So he ended up doin' his retirement. And from there, I'm not too sure. I try not to think about him. I'm just hoping that I never see him again in the streets or in a store. But if it does happen, I don't know, to be honest with you. I really don't know. Still, I get that fear that he might, you know, do something, anything. But I just still have that fear.
Lee: How do you begin to process all of that?
Branch: I'm still kinda processing it. Man, that's like a deep question for me. I'm just still processing it. Sometimes I do feel that I want to know why he did what he did. But sometimes I just try not to think about it, and forgive him, and just go on with my life. Because at the same time, I'm not gonna hear what he has to say or I'm never gonna get a apology from the sheriff's department or from him on what he did that day.
Lee: We reached out to the San Diego Sheriff's Department about Robert's case. They declined to comment. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.