My Two Cents on Eric Garner December 5, 2014Posted by Sobek in News.
That title is inaccurate, and I’ll talk about why, but Garner’s death (and Officer Pantaleone’s not getting indicted) is what prompts this, so here we go.
I actually want to talk about choke holds and a carotid restraint hold. Some sources say a carotid restraint is the same as a choke hold, but I want to define them separately. A choke hold, for the purpose of this post, is when you use the bones in the forearm to collapse the airway. A carotid restraint is when you use both the upper and the lower arm to collapse the carotid arteries. Either hold is intended to render the subject unconscious, but by the different means of stopping either oxygen flow to the lungs or blood flow to the brain.
1. Eric Garner and racism
I do not know or care about the race of anyone involved in the Eric Garner case. It is completely irrelevant to whether the police acted appropriately and whether the grand jury should have charged the officer. The same was true for the Trayvon Martin case and the Michael Brown case.
2. Eric Garner and the militarization of police
This is not a post about the militarization of police. Even if, as can be persuasively argued, our cops are in general getting to militarized, or even if too many of them are bullies, it doesn’t change how we ought to react to specific cases. The vast majority of cops may in fact be hyper-militarized bullies, and it will never make it okay to make unfair assumptions about individual officers. That said, it is equally unfair to make assumptions about victims of police brutality. Neither “he must have gotten what was coming to him” nor “no way did he deserve this” are fair assumptions at the outset of a new story about police brutality.
3. Eric Garner and choke holds
As I said before, this isn’t really a post about Eric Garner. In fact, I’ve never seen the video of Garner being subdued by police. I’m going to talk about police restraints and tactics, and extrapolate from that to some hypotheticals about a Garner-like situation, and hopefully that will make it obvious why I so strongly disfavor making assumptions about either side in a fight.
4. Choke holds and carotid restraints.
The great thing about arteries is that they carry blood to all parts of your body, and the other great thing about them is they’re really flexible. So if you clamp one shut, you block the flow of blood, but without damaging the artery. That means as soon as you remove the restraint, the blood starts flowing again, and consciousness is quickly restored. Here’s a picture:
This diagram shows the bicep and the forearm acting as a vice on either side of the subject’s neck. The black arrows are pointing at the collapsed carotid arteries. If you hold the subject like this for about 30 seconds or so, he will lose consciousness. Absent some other circumstances, the hold shouldn’t kill the subject. Those “other circumstances” include holding the arteries shut for too long, or dislodging built-up plaque in the arteries that goes on to induce a stroke.
The choke hold is different. Instead of two black arrows at 45 degrees to the neck, imagine one black arrow heading straight back into the neck. In that case, the carotids are unaffected, so blood flow to the brain is not altered. You’re closing up the wind pipe, which stops air to the lungs, which in turn will lower oxygen levels in the blood until unconsciousness is induced. As you can imagine, that takes more time. But there’s a much bigger problem: The trachea is far less flexible than the arteries. And there’s a very fragile bone in there, called the hyoid bone, that you can break with a choke hold. If you crush the trachea or break the hyoid, then the subject isn’t returned to status quo once you release the hold. If your trachea is crushed, you need medical attention immediately or you will suffocate, and even medical attention might not be good enough.
Incidentally, I got that diagram from this web site, an author who I assume is a medical professional. She argues that neither the carotid restraint nor the choke hold is a “safe” technique. I quibble on what counts as “safe,” but I’ll save that for a tad later in this post.
5. Police tactics and use of force
Ace dissents from a very common opinion in the Garner case. Even though Garner’s offense was minor, he argues, if we’re going to ask our cops to enforce laws (even dumb ones), we need to give them the leeway they need to do so. That makes sense as a general principle. But I also sympathize with those who say no one should be killed by the cops for breaking cigarette stamp laws. How to reconcile those views?
My view is actually that no one should be killed by a cop for breaking any law, including murder or rape. Killing people is simply not in the officer’s job description. That might sound a little weird for professionals who are issued guns and ammunition. But the police are not authorized to kill people, they are authorized to “use deadly force.” The deadly force means force that may reasonably be expected to result in the death of the subject of that force. But death is not the intent – the intent is to stop whatever threat necessitated the use of that force.
If a cop goes to speak with someone, and that someone reacts violently towards the cop, then I expect the cop to defend himself, including by the use of deadly force if the situation warrants it. That applies whether the cop is interrogating a murder suspect, citing a traffic violator, or just asking for directions. The reason that the contact was initiated isn’t really part of the equation, in terms of whether deadly force is justified. It may be a factor in the officer’s perception of a threat, of course – if the cop approaches a tatted-up gang-banger who probably just killed someone, I expect that cop to be on high alert. But if the gang-banger presents no imminent threat of death or serious physical injury, and if the jaywalker does, then use of force is justified in the latter case and not the former.
Shouldn’t the cop use non-lethal means? Well, that depends on the circumstances, in the best judgment of the officer. A Monday-morning quarterback may have preferred the cop hit the subject with his baton, but a) a baton strike can also be lethal, and b) it might not stop the threat. That first point is very important. If the cop thinks, “this is just a jaywalking confrontation, I’ll use the baton to strike the shoulder,” the subject could move at the last second, take a baton strike to the skull, and end up dead anyway. It doesn’t mean the jaywalker deserved to die, but that certainly is a risk any time you use force to secure compliance. As to the second point, here’s a cop who takes the opposing view on carotid restraints. He argues that the carotid restraint, which the LAPD is not authorized to use, could have ended the Rodney King situation in seconds, rather than minutes, and there would have been no permanent damage to King, no riots, and Reginald Denny wouldn’t have been beaten nearly to death. Seems like a pretty good deal, all things considered.
6. Back to Garner
So how does any of this apply to Garner? The first point is that it ultimately makes no difference that his crime was selling untaxed cigarettes. No, you can’t kill someone for doing that. But if the cop goes to cite Garner, and Garner begins violently resisting, the officer is entitled to use force to stop a threat. If deadly force is an appropriate response under the circumstance, then the difference between a choke hold and a carotid restraint is irrelevant. If a bad guy – not Garner, but any bad guy – wants to fight a cop and potentially end that cop’s life, then the cop is entitled to use force. An appropriately-applied carotid restraint that does not end in death is the best outcome, but sometimes bad crap happens. Don’t fight cops, yo.