Observations: Neck Restraints & Chokeholds

(June 23, 2020). The first case I wrote an expert opinion on was the use of a chokehold during an arrest. It had been applied while the suspect (our client) was handcuffed. The result – he ended up a quadriplegic and died one year after the case was settled.

Over the  years I have seen numerous examples of their misapplication, yet the debate over safety and value still remains. One peer reviewed research study on vascular neck restraints  deemed it “a safe and effective force intervention”; however, it also cautioned that “outcomes could vary in different populations”. Although interesting from an academic viewpoint, the conclusion has serious shortcomings outside of the laboratory setting.

So, what are the problems with neck restraints and chokeholds? To better answer this question we should first examine where these types of techniques come from. One source is combat judo or jiu-jitsu and wrestling. Here, the holds are applied in controlled situations (sport) or in combat situations where residual damage is not a consideration. In eastern martial arts all of the techniques that apply direct pressure to the neck are labelled ‘strangulation’ methods. This means that serious injury or death are recognized as viable outcomes. (When I trained with the Chinese Special Forces, a variation of the chokehold was taught as a sentry removal technique.)

The question then becomes “what happens when neck restraints and chokeholds are introduced into law enforcement or security training?” Typically, the instruction and practice suffers from two root deficiencies: inadequate and improper training.

The most obvious shortcoming is that officers do not undergo either extensive training in the technique nor do they practice it regularly. As a result, they fail to obtain a high degree of proficiency in its use.

Another shortcoming is that the techniques are presented under ‘ideal’ conditions – typically a well-lit gymnasium, on mats, and under instructor supervision. On the ‘street’, none of these conditions are present. The terrain is wet, uneven, gravelled or littered; lighting levels may be poor. The suspect is non-compliant (opposite of your training partner in class). Here, the technique may have been initially applied correctly; however the suspect’s movement causes the officer to apply pressure incorrectly or at the wrong place. Because the officer is operating under stress, excessive pressure may be applied to the neck region to (re)gain compliance. Damage to the hyoid bone, dislocation of cartilage, stroke, heart attack and spinal injuries are just a few of the negative outcomes related to its misapplication.

In the case of the research study other variables were also in play. All participants were volunteers; physically fit; no relevant prior medical history; and free of medications. These variables are most often not the case in ‘real life’ as suspects tend to be intoxicated, on drugs (or off their medication) or in other altered mental states (AMS). While the experimental data my be valid, the general statement “a safe and effective force intervention” is not.

Other factors that are often overlooked in training include the situation where the officer is shorter than the taller, larger, suspect. As well, the positioning of the shorter officer’s body weight, should the chokehold be applied, can create further injury.

There are safe, effective, methods of restraint, similar to neck restraints that do not apply direct pressure to the neck. They maximize mechanical efficiency, mitigate residual damage, and can be used by a smaller officer against a larger suspect. Unfortunately, it’s my observation that law enforcement and security officers are not learning or employing these techniques. 

In my expert opinion, it’s time for a change.

Observations: Kneeling

Military Police Armed Arrest & Control training

(June 16, 2020). I just finished reading an article by a police trainer and use of force expert. He, as well, as several police spokespersons have been quoted as saying that they do not teach, nor endorse kneeling on a suspect who is on the ground. However, in contrast to their statements, we can find numerous examples where this technique is routinely used. 

So what does this mean? It means either the technique is being formally taught or, it is not being taught formally, but rather being informally ‘passed around’ and copied by officers. Regardless, kneeling on the neck, back, or in the case of one instructor on the wrist, to control a suspect is both dangerous and potentially fatal.

Why then does this seem to reoccur? The answer lies in what I call – Root Deficiency: Improper Training. Here, two things are happening. The first is that the methods being taught to officers really do not work under ‘street’ conditions; therefore, the officer is forced to resort to brute strength to bring the suspect under control. The second is that officers are taught ‘what to do’ but not taught ‘what not to do’ or ‘the consequences of applying a technique incorrectly’.

I am a use of force expert witness (30+ years), with extensive experience as a trainer. I can, therefore, say with confidence that there are safe and effective means of restraining suspects that minimizes residual damage, maximizes control, and avoids kneeling, sitting, or using brute force on a suspect. Unfortunately, I have never observed these techniques being taught to police.