As the nation reels from widespread protests over the death of George Floyd and against police brutality, the Phoenix Police Department announced on Tuesday that it would suspend the training and use of a neck restraint technique.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams framed the move as a reform-minded concession to the community intended to build trust.
"We can't function as a department without the trust of our community and there are adjustments we can make to strengthen that trust,” Williams said in a statement released on Tuesday. “We pride ourselves on being an organization willing to learn and evolve, to listen to our community and become better. I am confident this moves us closer to that goal."
The technique, which is officially dubbed a Carotid Control Technique, involves an officer putting their arm around a person's neck and applying pressure to the sides of it in an effort to cut off blood flow to the brain and render them unconscious. (The technique is sometimes called a "chokehold," but that's not technically correct: Choking cuts off a person's airway; carotid restraints cut off blood to the brain.)
While proponents have historically argued that it is safe if done properly, the high-profile death of Eric Garner in 2014 due to a New York City police officer's neck restraint, and recent national outrage over the killing of Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on his neck for around nine minutes, have made such tactics controversial, if not despised. In response to Floyd's death, lawmakers in New York have banned neck restraints, while the San Diego Police Department has reportedly ended use of the tactic on its own.
But it was only a few years ago that Williams herself was a proponent of the tactic, even after the death of Eric Garner. Prior to getting named as chief of the Phoenix Police Department in 2016, Williams effectively defended the Carotid Control Technique when asked about it at a candidate forum on June 6, 2016.
The moderator at the forum posed a question from the audience about whether the candidates for chief would "remove" the technique from all training within the department." In response, Williams cited a instance when she was in a physical struggle with a suspect while out on patrol without backup and used the technique.
"The cavalry wasn’t there, the cavalry wasn’t coming. Tight space, tight quarters, couldn’t get my gun, so I had to apply the Carotid Control Technique and it worked effectively," she said. "It was effectively applied, I was trained properly."
While she diplomatically stressed in her answer that use-of-force policies are continually updated and that she would "listen to the voices in the community" regarding concerns about the tactic, she characterized the carotid restraint technique as an effective way to get resistive suspects into custody.
"We do have to operate and function. And I know this may come as no surprise, there are some people out there that don’t want to go to jail willfully," she said. "We have to give our officers options for things and those options, if it’s something that can be done safely for both the officer as well as the person involved, then we resolve the situation and the scenario when you call us for service, then I think that we’ve done our job."
Footage from the candidate forum is embedded below. The moderator's question regarding the tactic begins at the one-hour-and-nine-minute mark. Williams gives her answer a few minutes later.
Some local police brutality activists say the move to ban the practice is too little, too late, especially when considering how long the tactic has been considered controversial.
"The moment is moving them to do things that they’ve been asked to do for a long time, they being the city council, the mayor, and Chief Williams," Viri Hernandez, executive director of the local anti-police brutality group Poder in Action, told New Times. "For us, this is a cheap and failed attempt to try and calm the grief and pain that is happening."
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"There’s been a lot of opportunities, a lot of moments from Eric Garner to Muhammad [Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin Jr.], who was killed here in Phoenix who also said 'I can’t breathe'," she added. "These are old past due changes and we are beyond that."
"Hopefully this is a first step in many of Phoenix police changing their policies so that way victims of police brutality will not have to die in the future," said Benjamin Taylor, an attorney at the Phoenix-based Taylor & Gomez law firm who handles civil rights and wrongful death cases.
(Taylor currently represents 19-year-old Dion Humphrey, who filed a $10 million claim against the city over an incident where he was misidentified as a robbery suspect by Phoenix police and shot at with a rubber bullet.)
"A knee on a person’s neck, that could suffocate them — that is a future reform that should be looked at in the City of Phoenix Police Department and all agencies," he said. "George Floyd was with a knee. The only difference here is that you have an arm around your neck that is sucking the life out of you... Better late than never. We wish that this would have happened sooner."