Hadaka Jime, otherwise known as the rear-naked choke to those outside of Judo, is a standard “choke” which is applied when an individual blocks off the carotid arteries on the sides of the neck. Blood flow slows to the brain and the individual falls unconscious within approximately 5-10 seconds. Once the choke is released, blood flow resumes and the individual wakes up. In a proper carotid choke there is no pressure applied to the windpipe and thus there is no disruption in breathing. In Judo tournaments children as young as 16 are allowed to apply near full-tilt carotid chokes to the point of submission or unconsciousness. Kids in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournaments can apply chokes in the same manner as young as 6.
While Judo and Jiu Jitsu are by no definition tame, children and adults are allowed to use variations of carotid chokes regularly even to the point of unconsciousness without the body count one would associate with a deadly or fatal technique. Exceptions and accidents do exist but the numbers back up the relative safety of these moves. As such, the notion that any use of a chokehold is inherently deadly force is either a gross exaggeration or the result of misunderstanding the technique. In law enforcement, carotid chokes are known as “Vascular Restraints.”
In contrast to carotid chokes, there are windpipe chokes which occur when one individual applies pressure to the trachea causing pain and restricting the air flow. This is what people think of when discussing chokeholds but the technique is far different. With enough (but not much) pressure the trachea can collapse completely restricting airflow which can obviously be fatal if not immediately treated by someone with adequate medical training. As a result, windpipe chokes are banned in Judo and largely frowned upon in Jiu Jitsu. Furthermore, too much pressure is more likely in a windpipe choke than a carotid choke because it takes significantly more time to choke someone unconsciousness by blocking the airway than by blocking the blood flow. In law enforcement, windpipe chokes are known as “lateral restraints.”
Unfortunately, some rear naked chokes when applied improperly, primarily by people with little training, or little regular training, can shift the force applied toward the windpipe as a choker tries to squeeze harder. Law enforcement training in chokeholds has been unfortunately subpar and the historical misuse of windpipe chokes and the misconception of lateral and vascular restraints being the same have resulted in many departments banning all neck restraints outright. This is unfortunate, because a properly applied carotid choke is more likely to subdue a resisting citizen without injury than many of the tools and tactics currently and regularly used by officers today.
At the point that an individual is actively resisting, choking them unconscious long enough to secure them in handcuffs is far less risky than resulting to a collapsible baton, strikes with fists, elbows, feet, a flashlight, or the taser. When a person is choked out, they are unconscious until the choke is released. When a person is tased, as soon as the taser cycle ends, the individual regains full control and is typically quite a bit angrier. Similarly, mace does little to incapacitate a resisting subject besides causing pain and blinding them, while also running a high likelihood of cross-contamination. In a situation where a distraction is needed, or you want your subject not to be able to see you, mace has its use but it does little to nothing to stop resistance.
In reference to Eric Garner, if a carotid choke was applied to him, he would not have been awake to repeatedly scream, “I can’t breathe!” Furthermore, if Mr. Garner’s airway was blocked he wouldn’t be able to talk because the pressure to his trachea would prevent the expulsion of air and put pressure on his vocal chords. If the officer had applied a carotid choke improperly and put pressure on Garner’s throat there would be damage to the windpipe which the coroner stated that there was not. I know this is confusing due to the contradictory nature of the coroner’s report listing the cause of death as from a chokehold. However, that conclusion is probably premature and more of a political statement given the controversy surrounding the video than in line with what actually happened medically.
With that said, there is form of in-custody death that has been notorious in situations like what happened to Eric Garner that has been more or less completely ignored by the media and the protesters. When an individual is placed face down and has numerous other individuals, like say, NYPD officers from Staten Island, pile onto his back, the result can be a suffocation event related to positional asphyxia. The pressure to Mr. Garner’s chest when combined with his pre-existing medical history likely caused him to suffocate and he would still be able to scream, “I can’t breathe” during the ordeal.
Positional Asphyxiation can occur simply from an overweight person being placed on their chest and having their arms restrained by, for example, some type of hogtying technique. It does not require pressure on their back to occur, so imagine the result when you add the combined weight of around five officers. Given the video evidence and the coroner’s report, it is therefore my opinion that Eric Garner died of a result of positional asphyxiation and not a chokehold.
The irony is that the hyper focus on the chokehold technique being an “Illegal technique” and using that classification implying that Pantaleo did something that was intrinsically fatal is probably the reason why he was not indicted. All officers going through the academy today are aware of the concept of positional asphyxiation so if charges were sought against Ofc. Pantaleo and the rest of the officers for piling onto Mr. Garner’s back, they might have actually resulted in an indictment. If nothing else, the officers on scene and the supervisor in particular would probably (and should probably) be civilly liable for a preventable death.
However, in the rush to follow the coattails of the “Justice for Michael Brown Movement” and the general message that “Any Officer Related Death = Murder,” the community overreached in attempting to blame a technique form that they:
A: Did not understand,
B: Wasn’t really used here,
C: Nor would it likely have been fatal if actually used.
Of course, this is not to speak to the validity of arresting someone based upon selling loose cigarettes. Even officers who don’t agree on the cause of death for Eric Garner, can usually come together in the understanding that this was a waste of time case with tragic results. There is definitely police culpability to be found here but it has to be based on the evidence of the case and not simply what you believe happened based upon a video unsupported by the technical reality.