As the nation marks a year since George Floyd was murdered by a former Minneapolis police officer, state legislators in New Jersey are debating whether to continue allowing officers to use chokeholds as a form of self defense—or ban the controversial technique altogether.
At issue is proposed legislation that would label chokeholds—a technique which restricts and prevents breathing through neck compression—as "deadly force" that an officer can use if they feel their life is threatened.
But opponents say the maneuver could also have fatal outcomes and argue that police should focus on de-escalation.
“Chokeholds are torturous and deadly and have no place in a just and humane society,” Yannick Wood, the director of criminal justice reform at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, told the State Senate's Committee on Law and Public Safety during a hearing last week.
“Why, then, would we act to legitimize the very practice that we should condemn?”
New Jersey’s current use of force law allows for the use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer, but only if it’s necessary to protect the police or another individual from death or harm, to prevent the escape of a violent criminal or to prevent a violent crime from being committed.
The committee had been preparing last Thursday to vote on the bill to explicitly categorize chokeholds as "deadly force."
Instead, it tabled the legislation after hearing testimony from social justice advocates who said the measure would give police cover to use chokeholds, and that it doesn’t go far enough to protect civilians.
The bill's main sponsor is Senator Shirley Turner, a Democrat who represents Trenton - a city that is 47% Black and 38% Hispanic.
Turner said she initially wanted to categorize chokeholds as “deadly force" in response to Floyd’s videotaped murder last May which put an international spotlight on the deadly interactions between police and Black men.
But after hearing opposition from social justice advocates, Turner co-sponsored a new bill that would go further; it would ban chokeholds completely, dubbing it “George Floyd’s Law.”
“We want to make sure that police officers are going to truly uphold the oath that they take to serve and protect and not to just execute innocent people needlessly," she told Gothamist.
However, Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said that while he supports the proposal to label chokeholds as deadly force, he would not support an outright ban because, he said, it may put officers in danger.
“We have to understand that deadly force is deadly force, it's horrible, it’s obviously violent,” Colligan said. “It’s a last resort for police officers and it just can’t be removed.”
No date has been set for revisiting Turner's more aggressive bill, but should the measure advance later, New Jersey would join New York in banning chokeholds from being used in their police departments. At least 17 states have laws banning or restricting the use of neck restraints by the police, with most enacted after the murder of George Floyd, according to an analysis of data The Associated Press received from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Floyd died on May 25th last year after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes. Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd.
Since then, there have been widespread calls across the country to stop overly aggressive policing, especially in interactions with Black men.
Staten Island resident Eric Garner, also a Black man, died in 2014 after a New York police officer held him in a chokehold. That officer was fired, but never charged.
Wood said chokeholds are also dangerous because police officers are not trained to use them. Police officials confirmed that chokeholds are indeed not a part of defensive tactics training for law enforcement in New Jersey.
Joseph Gedeon reported this story for the Gothamist/WNYC’s Race & Justice Unit. If you have a tip, some data, or a story idea, email reporter Joseph Gedeon at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to him on Twitter @JGedeon1. You can also text him tips via the encrypted phone app Signal, or otherwise, at 929-351-5374.