NJ lawmakers delay vote on police chokeholds, activists seek ban
TRENTON – Legislation that seeks to limit the use of chokeholds by police stalled in the Statehouse in the leadup to Tuesday's anniversary of George Floyd’s murder – and police reform activists were thrilled.
The bill, A4263/S2562, had already passed the Assembly nearly unanimously last June, 72-0 with six votes to abstain. It would clarify that a law enforcement officer who knowingly chokes another person engages in use of deadly force, which is only allowed in limited circumstances.
Activists say chokeholds should be banned entirely, not allowed in circumstances that would justify it when needed to protect the officer or another person from death or serious bodily injury, to arrest or prevent the escape of a violent criminal or to prevent the commission of a violent crime.
“Chokeholds are torturous and deadly and have no place in a just and humane society,” said Yannick Wood, director of criminal justice reform for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “… Why, then, would we act to legitimize the very practice that we should condemn?”
Sarah Fajardo, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said that “business as usual and institutional practices steeped in racial violence must change.”
“While this bill appears to discourage chokeholds, it actually could allow and legitimize their use,” Fajardo said.
“Deadly force is allowed in New Jersey,” she said. “Categorizing chokeholds as deadly force still allows for their use. It’s widely known that chokeholds are deadly, and we’ve heard from law enforcement that they are not regularly trained on for use of this tactic in New Jersey.”
At the start of last Thursday’s Senate Law and Public Safety Committee hearing, it appeared as if the bill would be advanced. Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, the committee chair, offered a defense of it but later said it would be held based on the testimony that was heard.
“It’s only allowable, I guess, in the most extremely limited situations because protecting the life of the officer is also important,” Greenstein said.
“I see this bill as a reasonable step in the right direction,” she said. “I don’t see it as perfect, perhaps, and maybe eventually we will get to perfect. But I think it does advance us. And at a minimum, it doesn’t make things worse because it clarifies or codifies what exists now.”
Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-Union, a former Union County undersheriff, said the state Police Training Commission doesn’t provide for chokehold training. Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, said the bill provides a path to exonerating officers who may misuse something they’re not even taught.
“So, now New Jersey is going to legitimize a practice that’s not taught and supply statutorily a defense to the officers who use it as against the citizens upon who it is used,” Gill said. “So, we have done two things here as a public policy that I think is extremely dangerous.”
“I almost feel like Alice in Wonderland here, in terms of going down the rabbit hole,” she said. “It may be well-intentioned, but we know about the road to whatever was well-intentioned.”
Wood said officers do face lots of threats but also have lots of tools available, other than chokeholds.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate for an officer to improvise using a chokehold, which is a very dangerous technique, which we’ve seen time and time again results in the death or serious injury of people,” Wood said.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.