By: Matt Bittle

DOVER — State legislators filed a bill Wednesday to prevent police officers from performing chokeholds and similar techniques unless 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 last month, the measure is part of a series of criminal justice reform proposals announced last week by the Legislative Black Caucus.

The bill would criminalize 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.” The bill would make the practice a felony called aggravated strangulation if performed by a law enforcement officer.

It does nonetheless include an exception when the performer believes a life was in danger otherwise.

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.

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

The officer has since been charged with second-degree murder.

“This bill is extremely needed given the pulse of our state and nation; it recognizes and embraces this very pivotal moment in our history to address systemic failures and potentially lethal interactions with law enforcement,” Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, a Wilmington Democrat who is the main sponsor, said in a statement.

“It holds law-enforcement officers to the high standard in which they have been trained in police departments throughout our state.

“We as a nation watched the video of George Floyd’s murder in horror. This bill is an effort to save lives, ensuring these unlawful techniques and holds are not utilized, thus providing greater security to our communities. The bill lays the foundation for the broader reforms that the Justice for All agenda presents to advance systemic change; ensuring that ALL Delawareans are protected lawfully.”

All 38 Democratic lawmakers are signed on as sponsors.

The measure is set to be heard in a special committee meeting Monday. The hearing will take place at Delaware Technical Community College’s Terry Campus in Dover, in the Del-One Conference Center, from noon to 2 p.m. The House Administration Committee will listen to public testimony on this measure and a constitutional amendment that would forbid racial discrimination.

Members of the public are welcome to speak as long as they wear face coverings and social distance. Individuals can also email statements to jon.patterson@delaware.gov.

“These techniques are not sanctioned by police departments in Delaware specifically because they are tantamount to torture and frequently lead to death,” Sen. Elizabeth Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat, said in a statement. “The use of chokeholds and knee-holds is antithetical to both good policing and every citizen’s right to an assumption of innocence, due process and a fair trial.

“With passage of this bill, they also will become a crime — a move that hopefully will result in the rogue officers who use them being held accountable for inflicting the kind of excessive violence that sows the seeds of fear and hatred in our communities.”

The General Assembly began meeting remotely through Zoom last month, four months after the two chambers last convened. The sessions are broadcast on YouTube for the public to watch live or later.

Because lawmakers must pass a spending plan by June 30, legislative leaders initially planned to focus solely on the budget, COVID relief proposals and some non-controversial technical bills.

That sentiment has changed slightly after the death of Mr. Floyd. With angered and frustrated Americans marching through the streets, demanding change for greater equality and racial justice, many lawmakers are also hoping to do something in this moment despite the time crunch and the unusual COVID-induced virtual session.

The chokehold measure figures to see a few votes against, at least in part due to the expedited nature of the process, but Democrats have the numbers to pass it without any support from the minority party.

The full House will likely vote on the bill sometime next week.

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