Is This a Chokehold? You Tell Us


Our cover story this week examines the ongoing debate in New York City about the use of chokeholds by the NYPD, through the story of Angel Martinez, a young man from Brooklyn who says he was choked during an arrest in 2012.

Attention has focused on chokeholds, a once-common technique that was banned by the department at least 30 years ago, ever since the death of Eric Garner in July. Shortly after Garner’s death, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an agency charged with reviewing misconduct allegations against the NYPD, reported that it had quietly collected 1,128 complaints about chokehold use between 2009 and 2013. The agency is now working on a report that will delve into some of those allegations and determine if there really is a problem with NYPD officers using a maneuver that’s widely considered dangerous and unnecessary.

Just as our story went live on September 23, we received word from one of our contributors, award-winning photographer Timothy Fadek, that he had captured an encounter that looked, at least at first glance, like it might qualify as a chokehold.

The incident occurred during Monday’s “Flood Wall Street” demonstration against climate change, where 104 people were arrested. As best we can tell, the man being arrested in the photos is Elliot Hughes, of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Reports from Newsweek identify him as an “organizer” for the Industrial Workers of the World. While IWW provided an email address for Hughes, our messages bounced back, and we’re still working on getting in touch with him.

Fadek said he didn’t witness what led up to the arrest. And significantly, based on the timestamps on his camera, which Fadek says he maintains with meticulous accuracy, the hold lasted no more than two seconds.

This is a case where we’re not too sure what to conclude. Two seconds isn’t a hell of a lot of time.

However, the NYPD Patrol Guide, a manual for officers outlining many of the department’s rules, offers an extremely restrictive definition of what a chokehold is. And it doesn’t reference a time span:

Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT use chokeholds [emphasis in original]. A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to, any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.

The plain-English reading suggests that any “pressure to the throat or windpipe,” momentary or not, is against the rules. But it also seems pretty obvious that two seconds of pressure would be unlikely to “prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air” in any significant way. It’s certainly a far cry from what’s shown in the video of Garner’s arrest. And the officer releases his arm so quickly, it’s hard to tell if the move even qualifies as a “hold” to begin with — it’s not even clear the move was intentional. A YouTube video apparently taken by other protesters shows the arrest, and describes it as “violent,” but doesn’t offer much more context.

So we figured we’d let the readers weigh in. We’ve also reached out to the NYPD and a few other sources for comment; we’ll update if we hear back. Oh, and, Elliot, if you’re reading this — please give us a shout.