BOSTON, Mass. — The use of excessive and at times deadly force by U.S. police officers has been under the microscope long before 2020. The death of George Floyd earlier this year however, brought the topic to the forefront of conversations across the country. Now, a new study from neurologists at Massachusetts General Hospital concludes that the very notion of “safe” police neck restraints is a dangerous myth.
In short, researchers say restraining police tactics involving the neck, by their very definition, can not be safe. This conclusion is especially poignant as researchers say numerous U.S. police departments across the country continue to teach officers that such methods are still an acceptable form of policing.
Roughly six years before Floyd’s death in Minneapolis was caught on camera, the death of Eric Garner due to a police chokehold sparked headlines and protests in 2014. Mr. Garner’s famous repeated last words of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry during protests against excessive police force. While these are two of the most public examples of police neck restraints leading to tragedy, researchers say there are many similar cases that largely go unnoticed.
Study authors say the use of chokeholds and similar tactics disturbed the team, so they decided to research the topic. They quickly discovered that while many police departments prohibit all officers from using such methods, a significant portion of other departments are still teaching new officers to this day that a “stranglehold” is a safe way of incapacitating an uncooperative suspect.
What’s a stranglehold?
The study defines this maneuver as compressing the two large blood vessels on either side of the neck (carotid arteries). It quickly cuts off the flow of blood to the brain and inducing unconsciousness.
“As a neurologist, I know that there is never a scenario where stopping the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain is medically appropriate,” says senior author and MGH neurologist Dr. Altaf Saadi, in a media release. “What shocked me most was that much of the literature supporting these techniques hides behind medical language, but lacks a real understanding of the pathophysiology of the significant harm they cause to an individual. As neurologists, we are taught that ‘time is brain,’ because there’s such a rapid loss of human nervous tissue when the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain is reduced or stopped.”
According to Saadi and her team, a stranglehold that compresses the carotid arteries using just 13 pounds of force can result in seizure, stroke, or death.
Alternatives to outright ban on police use of neck restraints
As far as what can be done about all this, outside of a universal ban on neck restraints by police officers, the study authors would like to see a reporting system that takes note of whenever these methods are used by officers.
They also recommend finding out how often are cops use a neck restraint by suspect who resist arrest. Also, what percentage of those incidents result in the suspect needing to go to a hospital and how many deaths have a link to a stranglehold? Right now, it’s difficult if not impossible to find reliable statistics that answer such questions.
“It’s in the public’s best interest to have this data,” Saadi concludes.
The study is published in JAMA Neurology.