General Assembly passes police chokehold ban

DOVER — The Senate approved a bill prohibiting police officers from performing chokeholds and similar techniques Thursday, a few hours after the House of Representatives did so. The measure now goes to Gov. John Carney, who will sign it.

The legislation outlaws “any technique intended to “restrict another person’s airway, or prevent or restrict the breathing of another person” or “constrict the flow of blood by applying pressure or force to the carotid artery, the jugular vein or the side of the neck of another person.” It contains an exception if the user “reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to protect the life of a civilian or a law enforcement officer.”

Crafted in the wake of nationwide outrage and mass protests after a Black man died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in May, the measure is part of a series of criminal justice reform proposals announced earlier this month by the Legislative Black Caucus.

Though the legislation passed the House unanimously, it saw more debate in the Senate, with the final tally ending at 16-5.

The proposal stems from a May 25 confrontation in Minneapolis that led to the death of George Floyd. Arrested for using a counterfeit $20 bill, Mr. Floyd was pinned to the ground, with Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck for nearly eight minutes, including after Mr. Floyd passed out.

Mr. Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree murder.

Delaware police officers are not trained to use chokeholds, according to officials.

Under the bill, an officer using a chokehold could be charged with the new crime of aggravated strangulation. Aggravated strangulation would be a Class D felony, punishable by up to eight years in prison unless the victim is killed or seriously injured. In that event, it would be upgraded to a Class C crime, which has a maximum sentence of 15 years.

A vote for the proposal is a vote in favor of wiping out systematic racism, Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, a Wilmington Democrat who officially introduced the bill, told his colleagues Thursday.

Nnamdi Chukwuocha

“It seems a simple thing that we can do, but again this is about saving lives,” he said.

Thursday also saw Gov. John Carney sign an executive order banning chokeholds with the same exception as the House bill. Additionally, the executive order requires implicit bias and de-escalation training for police, adds crisis intervention services, mandates an agency’s use-of-force policies be posted on its website, prevents the release of mugshots for those under 18, instructs law enforcement to utilize the Police Officer Decertification Database and seeks to increase community engagement.

The order covers the Delaware State Police, Capitol Police, the Department of Correction, Natural Resources police and Delaware Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement. Unlike the bill, it lasts only until the state undergoes a change in governor.

In a statement, Gov. Carney described the executive mandate as the “first steps that we can take administratively to improve the relationship between law enforcement agencies and communities of color in Delaware” and thanked the “vast majority of officers here and across our country” who want to see reforms.

The budget, which both chambers approved this week, contains language establishing task forces to look at racial inequity and how law enforcement officers interact with minorities.

Although the chokehold legislation ultimately passed by wide margins, it saw lengthy and sometimes contentious debate in the Senate, the second chamber to take it up. Subjects ranged from minutiae like the inclusion and definition of the word “reasonable” to the broader question of whether the bill was worth passing.

Sen. Dave Lawson, a former state trooper, argued the measure is not beneficial because chokeholds are not used in Delaware. The bill and executive order perpetuate the falsehood that law enforcements officers are oppressive, he said.

Dave Lawson

According to Sen. Lawson, police violence plagues other places, not the First State.

“We don’t have that aggressive community that they have out there,” the Marydel Republican said of Minneapolis.

Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, an Ocean View Republican, said police officers in Delaware are feeling unwanted and harassed, expressing concerns the state may soon have difficulty filling positions, he said.

“Why are we doing this? It’s just a slap in the face to those in blue,” he said.

Soon, Sen. Lawson agreed, police will not feel safe responding, and “we’re going to go back to the ‘60s, where street justice is going to be administered.”

The chamber defeated an amendment that would have made the crime applicable only when such a hold is used “intentionally” rather than “knowingly.”

“We are going to hold accountable those that violate that standard,” Sen. Elizabeth Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat, said.

In the House, Rep. Chukwuocha grew emotional after the vote as he thanked his colleagues for their support.

The times are changing, and people are finally truly realizing Black lives matter, Rep. Chukwuocha said, describing the “countless” times he’s been pulled over and questioned by police simply for driving while Black.

Rep. Mike Ramone, a Newark Republican, told representatives the recent movement has opened his eyes: “I’ve learned that I will never understand or know what it’s like to step on the elevator floor on floor one and get off on floor two because I was concerned that the other rider was uncomfortable with my presence.

“I will never know what it’s like to sit on the other side of an interview table and wonder if the interviewer is looking at my qualifications or looking at the color of my skin. I’ll never experience the apprehension felt when entering into an establishment because of the fear of rejection or the suspicion of potential wrongdoing simply because I’m Black.”