New York Law Journal: Police Should Apply Domestic Violence Advocates’ Lessons on Strangulation to Chokeholds

Amy Barasch, Executive Director of Her Justice authored the following opinion piece in the New York Law Journal.

In 2010, New York State first passed an anti-strangulation law. Over the next 15 weeks, 2,000 individuals were charged with strangulation. New York City reported the highest number of arrests for strangulation in the state. I often use this as an example of a good and necessary law—the NYS legislature passes hundreds of laws each year, most of which have little shelf life beyond their press conference. In 2010, the fact that police officers were ready and eager to charge strangulation, to me, was a demonstration that this behavior had been recognized for a long time, and officers just needed the right legal tool to address it.

I reflected on the history of that activism, and on the medical information I had myself learned, as a lawyer, when we all saw the effect of 8 minutes and 47 seconds of pressure on the neck of George Floyd.

I reflected on such history again when Mayor Bill de Blasio backed changes to a law that makes police chokeholds a crime due to pressure from the NYPD who insist the law makes it impossible to police.

States across the nation, like New York, are revisiting police use of the chokehold. Chokeholds, properly known as carotid restraints, have been one of the various tools in a police officers’ arsenal to exert control over a suspect.

A chokehold is a tight grip around a person’s throat to control their breathing. Strangulation is obstruction of blood flow resulting in asphyxiation. One is a sometimes-authorized police tactic used to exert control, the other is a felony. The police have been trained to commit one, and to identify and punish the other.

Police have long been an essential part of the fight against domestic violence. Given their duty to prevent and punish crime, domestic violence advocates were encouraged when so many police departments agreed that stopping abusive individuals from terrifying people with near death experiences should be a core practice for them. The NYPD has officially banned this technique in their police manual, and yet. Police should understand why a chokehold, like strangulation, should be illegal no matter who does it.

Strangulation is a crime often committed by abusive partners. When New York’s strangulation law passed, I was the Executive Director of the NYS Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. Strangulation laws were being passed across the country thanks to the efforts of domestic violence advocates and prosecutors. In New York, it’s not as though strangulation wasn’t already a crime, but it had to be charged as an assault. And in New York, we have what we call a “high physical injury threshold” for assault—meaning unless you have a broken bone, you’re looking at a very low level charge. Survivors of strangulation often show no serious sign of injury when the police arrive, even though they may have been near death, and internal injuries can be present.

It can take as little as 4 seconds for a person to lose consciousness after the oxygen flow to the brain is interrupted, and after 4 minutes brain death can occur. Police would respond to a home, and a victim might say “he choked me, and I blacked out for a minute.” There would probably be no bruises, no physical sign of harm. But if the hands had been around her neck for 1 more minute, she would have suffered permanent damage; 2 more minutes, we might have lost her. Around 68% of high-risk victims of partner violence experience this near-death experience. As one training program states, “the inability to breathe is one of the most terrifying experiences a person can experience.” Strangulation lets victims know that their partners could kill them if they wanted to.

People who abuse their intimate partners are often most interested in control; they need to be in charge of their relationship, and will use violence, coercion, and threats to ensure that they maintain control. Strangulation is common because the only weapon it requires is strong hands, and allows you to walk your partner to death’s door, and then “generously” bring them back. Or not.

To help police know how to identify these near-death experiences, domestic violence advocates across the country trained police how to identify a victim of strangulation. We told them that it wasn’t too much of a stretch to compare strangulation to water-boarding—it will either kill you, or leave no trace at all. And with both, you cannot breathe.

We trained the police on the details of strangulation in the hopes that they would do a better job of holding particularly dangerous abusers accountable. And we did a good job; strangulation charges were brought against violent partners in droves. Strangulation is now generally recognized as a prevalent form of abuse of power in intimate relationships, recognized in police manuals, advocacy handbooks, and hospital protocols.

Much has been said about how the presence of cell phones has made visible behavior that has been going on forever, but unseen. How many George Floyds survived 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes—without a scar, without proof that a police officer had walked them right up to death’s door, and generously, let them live?

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