Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld an arbitrator’s decision to reinstate Officer David Williams to his job with the Boston Police Department. The BPD had fired Williams in 2012 after an incident in which he applied a choke hold while arresting a man for disorderly conduct in the North End. An arbitrator later overturned the BPD decision, finding that Williams had not used an unreasonable amount of force in the encounter. 

It was not the first time that Williams had been terminated for harming a citizen while on duty. Back in 1998, the BPD canned him for the almost fatal beating of a plainclothes officer Williams had mistaken for a murder suspect. As with the current case, an arbitrator ruled against the BPD and put Williams back on the force.

In reading the SJC’s recent opinion on the matter, I was struck by the frustration that leapt off the pages. Frustration with the statutory constraints that limit the SJC’s ability to look anew at an arbitrator’s decision of this nature. Frustration with the BPD’s laggardly investigation into the incident. And, most notably, frustration with the use-of-force policy in the Commonwealth’s largest police department, which neglects to explicitly forbid officers from resorting to choke holds in subduing suspects. Justice Geraldine Hines wrote in the opinion that, “it is because choke holds are unpredictably lethal that both officers and the public deserve a bright-line rule.” In my view, the BPD should unequivocally ban the use of choke holds when restraining a suspect and define “choke hold” as broadly as possible.

I wrote about this issue in another Legal Ease post two summers ago after a BPD officer wrapped his hands around the neck of an 18-year-old man for roughly ten seconds while arresting him for disorderly conduct in Roslindale. At the time, I urged the adoption of a policy that would ban the police from applying pressure to a person’s windpipe given the threat of severe damage to the suspect. I reiterate that call to action today. 

BPD policies and procedures fail as a general matter to clearly bar conduct that resembles a choke hold. They do advise officers to “refrain from utilizing restraint techniques that include squeezing the trachea, windpipe or throat area to stop a subject from ingesting any controlled substance.” This is a good warning, even if limited to situations where a suspect is trying to swallow drugs (presumably to destroy evidence) and where pressure to the neck therefore carries a heightened risk.

The BPD also evidently neither trains officers in how to apply choke holds nor encourages their use, which is laudable. But BPD guidelines lack a comprehensive and explicit condemnation of these methods in all kinds of civilian encounters, unlike some major metropolitan police forces.  

For more than 20 years, the NYPD has banned choke holds. The NYPD broadly defines this behavior as “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” To be sure, the NYPD policy has not completely stopped the use of this technique. Recall the infamous death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer in July 2014.  Garner’s cries of “I can’t breathe” were memorialized on video, bringing much-needed attention to issues of police brutality nationwide. Notwithstanding the Garner tragedy, the NYPD policy has been clear—in training the police, in informing the public, and in providing an explicit standard to use in evaluating excessive force claims. 

Had such a standard been in place in Boston, the arbitrator would have been hard-pressed to reinstate Williams in light of his behavior in the North End incident.  Even if the arbitrator had still ruled that way, the SJC would have been better-positioned to reverse that decision.

Without question, it’s important for police officers to protect themselves from injury. But in doing so they should not put civilians at unnecessary risk. It’s time for the BPD to clarify once and for all that its officers may not use choke holds to restrain suspects. A side benefit of such a policy is that it would become easier for the BPD to terminate officers who resort to this technique—and harder for arbitrators to reverse that decision.