Here we go again. As jury selection begins this week, we must prepare for legal arguments that Derek Chauvin’s strangulation of George Floyd was justified.

Georgia’s past legislative debate about strangulation assault by law enforcement officers may prove helpful here for any considering those arguments.

In 2014, the State of Georgia made it plain: strangling is no longer allowed.

Backed by a broad coalition, including domestic violence prevention advocates, prosecutors, and police chiefs, state Representative Mandi Ballinger proposed HB 911 to clearly articulate strangulation as a felony offense in Georgia.

Throughout the legislative process, I only remember one area of questioning about HB 911: should the legislature carve out an exception to allow law enforcement to use strangulation outside of life-or-death situations?

As Executive Director of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, I was in the room when a Georgia House committee considered that question. Representatives crowded the far side of a black crescent shaped table, bracketed by filing cabinets, a House seal behind them on the wall.

After Rep. Ballinger presented HB 911, Lt. Janet Brady, an Atlanta Police Department (APD) commander representing Chief George Turner, came to the microphone at the focal point of the crescent.

“As police officers we no longer use the carotid artery restraint to subdue suspects,” the Lt. Brady testified in support of HB 911. “The reason for that is that it is lethal.”

“Ok, just so I’m clear,” Rep. Christian Coomer said, “If a law enforcement officer uses this restraint they are going to be put to the task of explaining that they were acting in defense of their life and subject themselves to potential criminal prosecution under this statute?”

Lt. Janet Brady, responded simply: “Yes.” The committee was satisfied, the Georgia Legislature passed HB 911 unanimously, and the governor signed it into law.

Can’t get much clearer than that: Don’t strangle anyone. Don’t touch someone else’s neck without their consent. Don’t interfere with someone’s breathing, or the blood or oxygen flow to their brains. For the folks in the back: that means you.

Case closed. Except that it isn’t.

Since 2014, I have watched the news and strangulation (often minimized as “choking,” which is what happens when you get food caught in your throat) keeps happening, too often state-sponsored strangulation, done by police on our behalf.

In fact, the power dynamics and absence of accountability that permit men to strangle women are the same dynamics that enable cops to strangle suspects.

In 2014, former New York Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo strangled Eric Garner to death. In 2016, APD Officer Matthew Johns kicked 15-year-old Antraveious Payne in the head and knelt on his neck.

In 2017, Henry County, GA officer David Rose strangled former NFL player Desmond Marrow as he was handcuffed on the ground. And, of course, in 2020, Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin strangled George Floyd to death with his knee. And, these instances are just a few in a long list.

The Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention acknowledged the widespread nature of the problem with a press release after the police killing of George Floyd: “It is Time for All Law Enforcement Agencies in America to Limit Pressure to the Neck to Deadly Force Situations.” 

Still, as NPR reported this year, police officers continue to return “time and time again to the neck restraint” despite public cries to stop.

I don’t believe the officers above intended to kill in these incidents. Rather, as in domestic violence cases, they were using strangulation to send the message to the men on the ground and their communities: Do what I say, because I can kill you at any time.

I have the right to control your body to the point of controlling your very breath. Especially chilling is the fact that all the officers in the incidents above are white and the men they strangled are Black. The message, steeped in a history of systemic racism and lynching, is clear: I own you.

We have videos. We know. The question then becomes, what happens next? What does meaningful accountability look like for men who strangle, for law enforcement officers who strangle, and for our communities who empower them?

To be clear, I think it is progress that all the officers above have been fired. And, in Georgia, my impression is that district attorneys and law enforcement are taking strangulation cases more seriously after the passage of HB 911.

I also believe that law enforcement needs to be a part of the community response to end strangulation. As an instructor at Men Stopping Violence, I work directly with too many men who have strangled women.

Often, I ask men: did anyone in the community ever tell you to stop abusing your partner before law enforcement got involved? Almost always the answer is no. That’s a community failure. And a societal one.

We need community norms that make strangulation unimaginable. As we change those norms, we need law enforcement to be one option within a community response to end strangulation, because it is a crime.

But we can’t have law enforcement strangling people, and prosecutors looking the other way or minimizing it. The law applies to all of us. State-sponsored strangulation is still strangulation.

In 2014, Georgia said unequivocally that strangulation is unacceptable. As national law enforcement trainer Lt. Mark Wynn says, we need to make the law keep its promise. Let’s make the law keep its promise – no more strangulation – until the community decides that strangulation is unthinkable, and everyone can breathe.

Greg Loughlin, MSSW, a former Executive Director of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, is currently Director of Community Engagement at Men Stopping Violence, a 39-year-old organization dedicated to ending violence against women. He received extensive training on strangulation from the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention in San Diego.

(Photo: Courtesy of Men Stopping Violence)

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