About 20 years ago I acted for a young police officer who was charged with assault occasioning grievous bodily harm after he applied a particularly vigorous choker hold in arresting a recalcitrant drink driver. Following his police training to the letter, my client locked his arm around the man’s neck and pulled it tight enough to restrict the offender’s blood flow to his brain, causing temporary loss of consciousness, a very effective way of incapacitating anybody. Unfortunately, he also managed to pop one of the man’s eyes out of its socket, and cause further unintended but significant damage.
Not surprisingly, at the time there was a huge controversy about police use of choker holds to subdue suspected offenders, and the press had a field day. But another decade later I was somewhat chagrined to learn, in the course of a coronial inquest into yet another death in custody, that the infamous choker hold was still being taught to police recruits at the Academy.
The latest tragic story of a seemingly routine police arrest gone horribly wrong came out of the US this month, accompanied by video footage of the incident shot on a mobile phone by a passing bystander, as is the modern way. The footage records the arrest, and eventual demise, of Staten Island man Eric Garner on the streets of New York. The 43-year-old father of six was put in a choker hold by police who tackled him to the ground after a brief argument outside a neighbourhood beauty supply store. As he went to ground Garner, an asthma-sufferer, could be heard protesting “I can’t breathe” repeatedly, and pleading for help as police officers began piling on top of him.
His friends say Garner was totally innocent of any wrongdoing, and had simply broken up a fight outside the store. Police say he was illegally selling cigarettes. Either way, he is now dead.
When are those who train our young police officers ever going to learn the choker hold is a potentially lethal assault? Its use should be reserved for only the most drastic and emergent circumstances, and even then should be used sparingly and with the greatest caution.
Chris Nyst – Gold Coast Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker