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NYPD Trains Officers on New Takedown Methods That Avoid Chokeholds

By Murray Weiss | March 2, 2015 7:41am
 The NYPD is teaching its police a new takedown move to avoid chokeholds.
The NYPD is teaching its police a new takedown move to avoid chokeholds.
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Flickr/Dave Hosford

NEW YORK CITY — The NYPD is being taught a new takedown tactic for people resisting arrest to prevent another Eric Garner tragedy as part of a three-day training course that also emphasizes better communication with the public, DNAinfo New York has learned.

The technique is a martial arts and wrestling move focusing on restraining the arms of a resisting suspect to bring them down without grabbing the neck. The approach — called a “Armbar Hammerlock" — has been used effectively in other police departments around the country, officials say.

“We never taught officers how to avoid having contact with the neck and to work as a team in taking a resisting suspect into custody,” said Michael Julian, the Chief of Personnel under Bill Bratton in the 1990s who has returned to that post to help retrain the NYPD following the Garner case.

“Before this, the NYPD approach was, more or less, just pile on,” said another law enforcement  official. "But we are giving officers other skill sets to use for non-threatening situations that will both protect them and the public."

The strategy calls for the officers, when possible, to wait and work in at least three-person teams when confronting suspects who do not want to be handcuffed.

Two officers should each grab an arm and seize control at the elbow. The third officer then "sweeps" a leg, which forces the suspect to a knee and into a position where they can more easily be handcuffed.

The "armbar" is an elbow joint lock that hyperextends the arm over a fulcrum — in this case, an officer's arm — allowing the officer to control the suspect by leveraging his arm over the fulcrum, according to a martial arts experts. 

The "hammerlock" action calls for the suspect's arm to be bent toward their back with upward pressure toward the shoulder joint, making it easier to handcuff an aggressor.

The new tactic is taught on the final session of a three-day program on a host of issues ranging from ways to control their anger and egos to improving communication and verbal skills.

“On The Inside” was given a look at the rest of the curriculum.

"Day 1 and Day 2 are designed to avoid needing Day 3, but if you get to that point we give you our best training to deal with that eventuality," another police official said.

The first day is a presentation by “Blue Courage,” a nationally-recognized program that focuses on the "Foundations of Policing" and reminds officers about public service, justice and fairness, and about the values that attracted them to police work in the first place.

Day Two’s program — called “Smart Policing” — was developed by the NYPD and focuses on communication. For example, the department asked Lt. Jack Cambria, the renowned head of the Hostage Negotiation Unit, to provide his insights to the entire force, and not just to HNU members.

Cambria, an expert on dealing with troubled people, provides a primer on how to deal with suspects by developing rapport with them and on ways to stay calm and avoid the need to resort to aggressive tactics.

When Commissioner Bill Bratton returned to the NYPD a year ago, he and Mayor Bill de Blasio claimed the department’s rigid adherence to stop-and-frisk and aggressive "quality of life" enforcement had alienated many New Yorkers, particularly those in formerly crime-ravaged minority neighborhoods.

They were developing new programs even before the Garner incident occurred.

“The NYPD gave its officers the tools to cure the crime problem and make the city safe,” said Julian, who was credited with calming the Tompkins Square rioters in 1988 by engaging them in dialogue.

“We gave them the tactics, the batons, Tasers, pepper spray and restraint techniques, but the officers were never taught to communicate, or to control their emotions, or ego, or anger or even to take a breath to find ways to deal with non-threatening encounters without resorting to force and escalating situations,” he added.

The curriculum has been shown to roughly two dozen City Council members. Even the NYPD’s harshest critics found nothing to fault, a top police official said.

Garner’s death was ruled a “homicide” by the city’s Medical Examiner due to a police “chokehold,” with Garner’s obesity and various other health issues contributing to his demise. 

The Staten Island father of six, who had been arrested more than three dozen times, was allegedly selling loose cigarettes and refused to be arrested again.

When an officer tried to take him into custody, one of them, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, grabbed him around the neck while others pulled him to the pavement.  On a video, Garner could be heard repeatedly saying he could not breathe.

A Staten Island grand jury later declined to indict Pantaleo, who testified in detail that he did not use a chokehold, which is barred by the NYPD, but not illegal.  He insisted he used a different technique taught at the Police Academy.

As a result of the tragedy, the NYPD came up with the new takedown which, they say, reduces the need to grab a suspect's neck.

Police officials insist that the new instructions are not meant to alter the way police officers handle “threatening” situations involving armed gunmen and hardened criminals. Traditional tactics taught at the academy should kick in.

So far, more than 6,000 officers have gone through the academy course.  An overwhelming majority gave the program their thumbs-up in anonymous polls taken by the NYPD, officials say.

“The men and women of the NYPD have been No. 1 in crime-fighting with an 85 percent reduction in crime since 1993,” Julian said.

“They answer millions of calls every day. They manage 5,000 events a year from parades to conventions to fireworks on July 4th to New Year's Eve, and when it comes to disaster control, as in a blackout, we get 10,000 officers on the streets in four hours.

“But there are now screens on cell phones showing officers cursing, kicking or abusing people needlessly, getting them and their partners in trouble, and it need not happen.

“We try to restore some of the empathy they may have lost along the way working the streets and change attitudes that are corrosive and get our officers to communicate better.”

Roy Richter, president of the Captains Endowment Association, observed that “policing in New York City has to adapt from an approach that defends a city under siege in the 1990s to one that needs greater involvement of the community and relationship building."

"At the same time you must prepare and equip officers to respond to dangerous life-threatening situations they respond to on a regular basis," he added. "The current three-day course addresses these factors.”