CHOKES, NECK HOLDS, AND THE LAW ENFORCEMENT USE OF FORCE.
One of the law enforcement techniques currently under examination by reformers, include the use of “chokes” or neck holds. These holds, common in martial arts applications and competitions for hundreds of years, are intended to briefly render a combative subject unconscious.
“Chokes” and strangles are typically defined by the physiology and/or body system the technique was intended to influence or interrupt. Choking may be more accurately understood as an airway obstruction, though it can also informally describe a strangle. Because chokes are intended to interrupt the ability of a subject to breathe, these “wind/air” chokes are typically applied across the front of the throat and are intended to close off the trachea until the subject loses consciousness from a lack of oxygen. To apply a choke, the forearm of one arm is usually placed under the chin and across the trachea, with the other arm forming a lever to maximize pressure of the arm across the trachea.
Strangles, or “blood chokes,” attempt to compress both of the carotid arteries in the neck until the subject loses consciousness from a reduction of oxygenated blood to the brain, typically in 5-10 seconds. Within a law enforcement context, this strangle may be termed a carotid control hold or a lateral vascular neck restraint (LVNR).
Law enforcement officers trained in the use of LVNR are instructed to avoid injuring a subject by maintaining the stranglehold for no longer than is necessary to produce unconsciousness and ensuring that the subject is able to breathe freely throughout the application of the strangle (Reay, 1982). A law enforcement officer may initiate a LVNR from a standing position behind the subject, subsequently guiding the subject to the ground to be secured. An officer may also apply the technique, typically from behind, when either or both the officer and subject are on the ground. The subject’s neck (carotid arteries) is compressed on each side by the officer’s arm bicep on one side, with the forearm across the opposite side of the neck. The other arm then forms a lever to increase pressure on both carotid arteries. The resultant structure and space provides that the subject’s trachea is not compressed. The lever arm may be used differently depending on skill level, training, and preference. Leverage can be increased and opportunities for the subject’s escape reduced when the officer interlaces his/her legs with those of the resistant subject or wraps their legs around the subject’s torso. Though the subject may experience and display panic or anxiety, there is generally no pain experienced with the correct application of the LVNR.
The effectiveness of a choke or strangle, and/or the length of time it takes for a subject to lose consciousness, may depend on whether the subject just inhaled or exhaled, the subject’s physical condition/neck muscle development, level of exertion offered to resist the choke, determination, and physical strength and size. Chokes may produce gagging sounds, considerable struggle, a contorted face, and eventually unconsciousness. Strangles, typically requiring 11 pounds of pressure on both the carotid arteries (Flosi, 2011), usually render unconsciousness more quickly, and when released, a subject may regain consciousness within seconds (10-30). Research suggests subjects with a higher body mass index, people with larger necks, or who are overweight, may be affected by the LVNR faster than other subjects.
An American Neurological Association's study examining temporary cerebral hypoxia (unconsciousness) reported the bouts of unconsciousness produced by a strangle lasted an average of 12.1 seconds, plus or minus 4.4 seconds. Muscle jerks and spasms, positional corrective movements, minor seizures, and head turns were reported, and most subject’s eyes remained open (Lempert, T.; Bauer, M., and Schmidt, D., 1994).
A choke or strangle maintained for too long after a loss of consciousness may result in death (Lonsdale, M. 1997). Available literature indicates death may result after 1-5 minutes of a completed and maintained strangle/choke. Deaths attributed to LVNR may be associated with an improperly applied technique, and possibly, a subject with heart conditions, mental illness, and/or under the influence of illicit drugs (Haynes, 2009).
Comparable to use in martial arts competitions, if the LVNR technique is applied correctly, should the technique be assumed as unreasonable in a law enforcement use of force? Why, or why not?
Is it reasonable for a less-skilled, smaller, exhausted, or injured law enforcement officer to apply the LVNR in lieu of higher force options and equipment? Why, or why not?
Though research indicates the LVNR is generally a safe technique and can be used as a lesser force option, why do you suppose individuals seek to prohibit its use? Do they provide peer-reviewed science to support their objection? Should it be required? Why, or why not?
What could be second and third order consequences of eliminating this lower force option with its associated lower incidence of subject injury?
How should a witness’ or critic’s lack of understanding and relevant field experience be regarded, in the objective analysis of the LVNR technique used in a law enforcement use of force, for reasonableness when the subject cries out and/or appears distressed during the correct application of the technique?
How should the LVNR technique used in a law enforcement use of force be evaluated for reasonableness if the subject is injured by the technique if it was compromised or defeated by the subject’s resistance? What if the injury was sustained during an escalation of force due to the subject’s resistance?
Christensen, L. (2010). Fighting the Pain Resistant Attacker. Turtle Press, Santa Fe, NM.
Flosi, E. (2011). Sudden in-custody deaths: Exploring causality & prevention strategies. Forensic Examiner, 20(1), 31-48.
Force Science Institute. (2012). Vascular neck restraint: Reprieve for a bum-rapped technique. Force Science Institute. Retrieved from http://www.forcescience.org/fsnews/198.html.
Haynes, B. (2009). Proper use of neck hold not fatal, research shows. Las Vegas Review Journal, November 27.
Lempert, T.; Bauer, M.; Schmidt, D. (1994). "Syncope: A videometric analysis of 56 episodes of transient cerebral hypoxia". Annals of Neurology. 36 (2): 233–7.
Penn, B., Cordoza, G., and Krauss, E. (2007). Mixed Martial Arts; The Book of Knowledge. Victory Belt Publishing, China.
Reay, D., Eisele, J. (1982). "Death from Law Enforcement Neck Holds". The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. September 3 (3): 253–8.