Chokehold Ruled Partial Cause Of Eric Garner’s Death

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The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office said Friday that neck compressions as well as compression of the chest while in the prone position were the causes of Eric Garner’s death. Garner’s existing health troubles—asthma, heart disease, and obesity—were also contributing factors.

After watching the initial cellphone video of the arrest and subsequent shakedown and scuffle to retrain, I was almost certain the officer’s arms around Garner’s neck were not quite in a position to cause death, or even unconsciousness. Actually, I never saw (in the video) a true chokehold applied. Goes to show that even a trained eye cannot totally rely on bystander video to draw an adequate conclusion.

However, I was firmly convinced that the weight of the officers “piling on” could have indeed been enough to cause Garner’s demise. Both the chokehold and piling on tactics are dangerous when used by anyone. Also, smashing Garner’s face against the pavement was not a pretty technique, but controlling the head could be an important part of gaining total physical control of a violent suspect. The “face smash” is not a technique I’ve ever taught to police, nor do I know anyone who has. But that’s not to say it isn’t taught to NYPD officers. I have, however, seen it used by officers when a suspect was attempting to bite them.

The chokehold, as everyone should know by now, is a banned technique in most, if not all police agencies. Chokehold deaths have occurred over the years, and that should be no surprise to officials. I stopped teaching “the choke” to recruits decades ago. I’ve always believed it to be an unsafe tactic, especially when used by those who are untrained. Its use could also be questionable for people who learned the technique “years ago” but failed to practice and train and re-train in its use.

Remember, though, when fighting for your life, well, anything goes. But not when making the “everyday” arrest. For those, there are clear-cut procedures and tactics/techniques taught to every officer. Sure, rules and regulations vary from area to area, but the basics are the same.

Piling on—the use of the combined weight of several officers—is not a restraining technique/tactic that’s taught to any police officer. Actually, officers are taught to control joints (wrists, elbows, etc.) and limbs (arms and legs) using compliance techniques, and even pain to the joints, if necessary. If those tactics fail the officer must move on to a higher degree of tactic—stun guns, TASER, the wrap, baton, ASP, pepper spray, etc.

I was a master defensive tactics instructor, and I’ve trained hundreds upon hundreds of police officers and other professionals over the years. I was pretty darn good at what I did, too. And, in all my years as a police officer, I never once used a chokehold to force a suspect to comply. Didn’t need to. On the other hand, I probably went through a couple of gallons of pepper spray and carved a few dents and notches in my baton and flashlight.

Properly utilized tactics work well, and with less effort. For example, I’ve brought combative people out of car windows and through their locked seat belts. Once I even made a very large, unruly man “un-ball” his fists. This list is long, and I won’t bore you with it any further, but my point is not to babble about things I’ve done, but to explain that properly used techniques, and there are many, do not require forcing a suspect into unconsciousness.

Now, to address piling-on. Imagine lying face down (prone) on a hard, flat surface, such as a concrete sidewalk. That act alone makes breathing a bit difficult. Next, add the weight of several grown men pressing down on your torso, forcing your back toward your chest and the walkway. The sidewalk does not give, causing an intense squeezing together of the back, chest, and the organs and bone between—heart, lungs, ribs, spine, etc.

To better picture the effect this has on a human body, think of a python and how it kills its prey. The large snake coils itself around the body of its victim, and each time the captured prey exhales the snake tightens its grip. The action prevents the prey from taking a new breath of air (inhale). The reptile repeats the exhale/grip-tightening until its victim’s oxygen supply is totally exhausted. The end result is death.

This is what I saw happen to Eric Garner—officers piling on—, and what I believe caused the immediate respiratory distress that later contributed to his death (he was heard saying, “I can’t breathe”). The tone of Garner’s voice clearly indicated distress. Not like the typical suspect who attempts to escape custody by feigning illness, etc., hoping officers will release their grip. Actually, at the time Garner indicated he was experiencing difficulty breathing, the tone of his voice was much different than when he spoke to officers at the onset of the incident. He was well on his way toward dying at that point.

Many people are calling for murder charges for the officers involved in Eric Garner’s death. And, the medical examiner did indeed rule his death a homicide. However, there’s a huge misconception about the word homicide and how it relates to a criminal charge. So lets clear the air. Homicide and Murder are not the same. That’s right. They. Are. Not. The. Same.

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Do I believe the officers intentionally killed Eric Garner? No, of course not.

On the other hand, are they responsible for his death. Yes. Why? Because they used techniques that are not approved by their department, techniques that have caused death in the past. In addition, there was an ample number of officers on hand to make the arrest. If the situation had been Garner against a single, or even two officers, things may be looked at differently due to the vast size difference between the officer(s) and Garner. And, had Garner attempted to flee, certain other factors might be considered in a more favorable light.

But, it is what it is. Garner is dead and his death was caused by three factors—police tactics that have been proven to be unsafe and potentially deadly, Garner’s health issues, and the fact that Garner committed a crime that brought the police to him in the first place.

I do predict we’ll see manslaughter charges for at least one of the officers. I also predict a huge settlement paid to Garner’s family. And, I think it’s safe to say we’ll see across the board changes to many officer training programs throughout the country.

2 thoughts on “Chokehold Ruled Partial Cause Of Eric Garner’s Death

  • Lee Lofland

    A reader, Bill Loftis, posted a comment about an inconsistency in my two articles regarding the death of Eric Garner. His comment was posted to the recent Friday’s Heroes column, so out of respect for the fallen officer I’ve removed the text from there and pasted it here (below).

    Mr. Loftis is correct. I did not address “piling on” in the first post, and that was merely an oversight on my part. My focus was on the chokehold because that was the issue of the day. And, I did not delete anything from either article. What you see is what was posted on their respective dates. I never try to sugarcoat anything on this site. Facts are what they are, no matter who comes out on top.

    However, Mr. Loftis, I did publicly address the piling-on issue and my observation and conversation about it being a possible cause of death took place on a popular writers group (crimescenewriter) on 7-20-14. It’s well-documented. There is a record of it, including the date and time I posted my comment to the group.

    In response to Mr. Loftis’ concern about my credibility, well, my reputation speaks for itself. However, there may be a problem with my memory since I thought I’d included (copied and pasted) my post from crimescenewriter to my blog entry. After all, that was the prompt and basis for the blog article. A writer’s question gave me the idea to write the article, and that idea included piling-on because I believed then as I do now that it’s a dangerous tactic. I’ve never been a fan of it and never will be.

    Anyway, here’s my comment to the crimescenewriter group.

    “To address the recent incident where the near 400lb man died after resisting arrest – it’s too soon to speculate the exact cause of death. All we know at this point is that the man died after several officers pinned him to the ground while making an arrest. The man was combative, therefore officers had no choice but to use the force necessary to gain control. Sometimes it looks a bit rough to outsiders, but I can assure you that a 400lb man takes quite a bit of strength to control, even when his resistance is minimal. We also know that an officer had his arms wrapped around the man’s neck in what could have been a choke hold. We do not know if it was indeed a true choke, or merely an attempt to control the head (if you control the head the body will follow).

    The suspect had a history of severe health problems that included asthma, high blood pressure, and more. No doubt the altercation caused the onset of “something” that contributed to his death, be it a choke hold, asphyxiation, stroke, cardiac arrest, and so on.

    However, a choke hold is a technique that pinches off the blood supply to the brain resulting in unconsciousness. It does not affect the airway. In the video of the NYPD incident, it does not appear that the officer did anything to compromise the suspect’s airway. The suspect was heard a few times saying, “I can’t breathe.” The tone of his voice sounded as if he was indeed in distress but, again, the choke hold, when properly applied does not stop airflow. If he could speak then he was getting some oxygen). In the video the suspect’s trachea is positioned at the crook of the officer’s elbow, which leaves the windpipe totally intact. By the way, that’s a counter move we teach officers who are placed in a choke hold by suspects. Tuck your chin into the crook of the choker’s elbow and the goon can squeeze all day long but he won’t be able to shut off your oxygen supply.

    I do believe the man was experiencing severe difficulty with his breathing. I’d be inclined to believe, though, that his death was caused by the combination of his physical problems along with the weight of the officers on top of him during the altercation. That weight alone (five or six men at 200lbs each) can prevent inhalation and exhalation, which can also bring on cardiac arrest.

    Of course, I could be wrong because, as I said, until the autopsy results are available we know nothing more than what we see in a video. Either way, the two parties share some blame – the officers for “piling on” and the suspect for resisting arrest by force. Death by choking…maybe. Death by any number of other things…maybe.

    As far as backing off when someone says, “I can’t breathe,” well, officers hear that one all the time. As well as, “I’m pregnant.” I have back problems.” “My doctors says you can’t handcuff me behind my back.” “I have AIDS.” And so it goes, with everything and anything they can say or do to get out of the arrest and going to jail.”

    Here is Mr. Loftis’ comment to today’s post, and I appreciate him calling this to my attention. Most of you know that I never edit my blog posts, and as I’ve stated many times in the past, I really should start.

    Bill Lofty –

    “Yesterday, the New York medical examiner stated the manner of Mr. Gardner’s death was homicide. Today, you state that when you initially watched the video, you felt that the pile-on with the suspect prone could have led to Mr. Gardner’s demise.

    In your previous assessment of the video, posted before the medical examiner’s report, you make no allusion to the ‘pile-on’, let alone say that this particular action could have contributed to Mr. Gardner’s death.

    First, have I correctly characterized what you said and didn’t say before and after the medical examiner’s report.

    Second, why did you omit your observations about the possible deleterious consequences of the so-called pile on from your prior post, and do you think this poses a credibility problem for you?”

  • Justme laura

    I just wanted to point out that alot of people are still looking for your update in the other section where you posted ” Chokehold Maybe not…
    Anyway i read your first article and thank you for explaining the differnce between iliegal and prohibited..To me as a civilian they both mean Dont do it period.. so im glad you explained that to me.. You made alot of sence and to tell you the truth your factual artical really swayed my opinion until i saw the 99 officer smile at the camera and waive as little as it may seem i bet ya its gonna come back to haunt him big time. I dont understand they say he resisted arrest verbally maybe i didnt see him fight back punch nothing i just heard him say dont touch me dont touch me.. I know im gonna get torn apart for this but i almost feel a bit sorry for the officer, he didnt go to work thinking that this was gonna happen, his whole life has now changed…his life his family life..Look what happen in the Baez case and i dont understand that. i thought it was double jepordy and even still he did jail time, How do they throw out a trial and then come after you again. Even if he asks for a judge trial rather then jury. I dont see it doing any good, When the public wants somebody this bad they get them. I Agree with you i think hell get manslaughter

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