Friday, December 5, 2014

Good questions to ask about the chokehold

I'll say up front that I do not have the answers to these questions, that I am not supporting or opposing the use of the chokehold by law enforcement, and that I am not expressing any opinion about any specific incident. This post is, however, inspired by discussion of specific incidents, in which I find that people often focus on one issue to the exclusion of others. That is one of my primary objections to debate about all sorts of issues.

Now, about the chokehold as employed by law enforcement. My understanding is that the purpose of the maneuver is to induce unconsciousness as a means of subduing a suspect. If we're trying to decide whether police should be allowed or encouraged to use the chokehold, and if a police officer should be held criminally liable for a death resulting from a chokehold, there are two questions that spring to my mind:

1. How dangerous is it? Clearly it is possible to cause death through the chokehold. On the other hand, there have been lots of incidents in which police have used the chokehold as intended. The specific question I have is whether use of the chokehold necessarily entails a significant risk of unintentional death, or if death only results from improper application of the chokehold. Put another way, to what extent can the risk of death be reduced by sufficient training of officers and sufficient care exercised in the use of the chokehold?

I had the same question when my wife had an amniocentesis. We were told that the procedure involved a small risk of miscarriage. Watching on the ultrasound monitor as the giant needle was inserted into my wife's uterus, I could easily imagine how a poorly trained or inattentive doctor could botch an amnio, and I wondered what percentage of miscarriages resulting from amniocentesis could be attributed to such factors. We were given some statistics--something like a 1 in 200 chance of miscarriage--but I wondered about the conditional probability of miscarriage given that the procedure is performed by a doctor who knows what he is doing and isn't asleep at the wheel.

There is what I would consider to be a more important question about the chokehold, of which I don't think I've seen any discussion:

2. What are other means of subduing suspects, and how dangerous are they? It is a certainty that police will routinely need to apprehend suspects, and some of these suspects will be unwilling to comply with police and will therefore need to be coerced into compliance. Let's say that a police officer's goal is to put a suspect in handcuffs with the minimum risk of injury or death to the police, the suspect, or innocent bystanders (not necessarily in that order). I couldn't say what the available options are, but it seems an inherently dangerous undertaking in any case. Is it possible that the chokehold is the best option at least some of the time? Assuming, of course, that the chokehold is used correctly and with due caution. It is not possible to make any sensible decision about whether the chokehold should be prohibited without considering the alternatives.

There are some things about which we can all undoubtedly agree: we must have measures in place to protect against abuse of power or negligence on the part of the police, and it is always tragic when a suspect dies in the course of police work. But the police are powerless if they are precluded from doing anything that poses any risk to anyone. The question is then what procedures should the police use and what constraints should be imposed upon the police in order to strike the best balance between public safety and the aims of law enforcement. I would not expect that there is an easy or obvious answer to that question.

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