PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Police Advisory Review Board will discuss possibly eliminating chokeholds at its next scheduled meeting.
The board agreed at its meeting Tuesday that before considering a resolution that it should ask the chief to draft a policy prohibiting holds designed to reduce blood or airflow before placing the item on the agenda for discussion.
"I don't want to put the cart before the horse and I think this should be on the agenda and something that we broadly discuss," Police Chief Michael Wynn said. "Before we put a resolution on the agenda, I think we need to get a consensus among the members."
Board member Drew Herzig brought forth the possible prohibition last month, noting that although chokeholds are not taught in Massachusetts they are not outlawed.
He suggested Tuesday that the board consider a resolution that would follow through and eliminate chokeholds locally.
Wynn said he was confident that this could be done at a local level but was not convinced it would really matter at a higher level.
"The short answer is yes, I think I can probably insert language into a policy that would outright prohibit it or greatly limit it and many departments have done it," Wynn said. "... But if an officer did it anyway, even if it was illegal and was terminated or disciplined or if we ended up in a civil rights suit for whatever reason, I am not sure if local prohibition would matter at all."
Wynn said the precedence has been set under the two current federal cases. In similar cases, they will look at "objectable reasonableness" and the "totality of circumstances."
"The judges will ask based on everything that was happening, did an officer under extreme duress believe they had no other option to protect themselves or someone else," Wynn said. "It is two separate systems and we are still trying to sort them out."
Board member Alfred Barbalunga added that he was hesitant to flat-out ban a maneuver when an officer may really need to restrain somebody and there are no other options.
"I think what we saw in Minneapolis was so brutal and so horrible ... kind of all believe that kind of behavior has to be prohibited with severe consequences," he said of the killing of George Floyd by police in May by keeping a knee on his neck. "The problem is when you have an officer who is trying to restrain someone who is physically superior, angry, and resisting. The difference between a chokehold and a headlock, it's not that big of a difference. It is how it is applied."
He added that is is hard to define unless you see the "composite perception of what the officer actually did."
Wynn said there is no consensus nationally. Some departments have outright eliminated chokeholds while others have brought them back in, he said, in the case of some western departments.
"They say that ... they went through this in the '90s and they learned their lessons and ended up with a lot more impact strikes so put it back in,” Wynn said. "With the right amount of training, it is much safer than batons."
He said other departments are taking a middle of the road approach and have put the maneuver at a higher level of force for the "worst of the worst” scenarios.
Wynn said he would help Herzig craft a resolution for discussion.
Before the discussion on chokeholds, the board talked more broadly about the department's "use of force" policy.
Wynn said he hopes to meet with member Sloan Letman in the near future to discuss different policies.
"We started with the current policy that we reviewed last month and it is a fairly progressive policy," Wynn said. "My intention is to kind of start with those documents as a foundation and bring something to you based on that."
He said this will all be informed by police reform and he noted the department's policy vendor is also undergoing a national review.
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