In 2014, the state of Georgia made it plain: strangling is against the law. Backed by a broad coalition including domestic violence prevention advocates, prosecutors, and police chiefs, State Representative Mandi Ballinger introduced HB 911 to make strangulation a felony offense.
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 then–executive director of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, I was in the room when a Georgia legislative committee considered that question. Representatives crowded the far side of a black crescent-shaped table, bracketed by filing cabinets, a House seal on the wall behind them.
After Rep. Ballinger presented the bill, Lt. Janet Brady, an Atlanta police commander representing Chief George Turner, addressed the hearing. “As police officers we no longer use the carotid artery restraint to subdue suspects.” The reason, Lt. Brady testified, “is that it’s lethal.”
“Okay, just so I’m clear,” Rep. Christian Coomer asked, “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. Brady simply responded, “Yes.” The committee was satisfied, the Georgia legislature unanimously passed the bill, 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 brain. 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, carried out by police.
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, New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo strangled Eric Garner to death. In 2016, Atlanta officer Matthew Johns kicked 15-year-old Antraveious Payne in the head and knelt on his neck. In 2017, Henry County, Georgia, officer David Rose strangled former NFL player Desmond Marrow as he was handcuffed on the ground. Last Memorial Day, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used his knee to strangle George Floyd to death. These are just a few examples in a long list.
After George Floyd was murdered, the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention issued a press release, “It is Time for All Law Enforcement Agencies in America to Limit Pressure to the Neck to Deadly Force Situations.” Nevertheless, despite public outcry, police have continued to return “time and time again to the neck restraint,” according to a report earlier this year on NPR.
I don’t believe the officers above intended to kill these men. Rather, as in domestic violence cases, they were using strangulation to send a 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 and public awareness, so what happens next? What does accountability look like for men who strangle—police or civilian—and for communities that empower them? It’s progress that all the officers in the cases cited were fired. In Georgia, district attorneys and law enforcement seem to be taking strangulation cases more seriously since passage of HB 911.
Law enforcement must be part of community response to end strangulation. As a domestic violence prevention instructor at Men Stopping Violence, I’ve worked 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.
Community norms must make strangulation unimaginable. And, because strangulation is a crime, police must be part of changing these norms. We cannot have law enforcement strangling people, and prosecutors minimizing their behavior. Statesponsored strangulation is still strangulation.
Georgia law said unequivocally seven years ago that strangulation is illegal. We need to make the law keep its promise. It must be enforced—no more strangulation. Because when society decides that strangulation is unthinkable, everyone will be able to breathe.
Greg Loughlin, MSSW, is a former executive director of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence. Currently director of community engagement at Men Stopping Violence, a four-decade-old organization dedicated to ending violence against women, he received extensive training on strangulation from the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention in San Diego. (https://www.familyjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/I-Cant-Breathe-Alert.pdf)