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Chapel Hill Police bans chokeholds after council request and public support

Chapel Hill Police vehicles standby at the Chapel Hill Police Department on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. The Chapel Hill Police Department's announced on Wednesday, Sept. 16 that they would implement a new policy that specifically bans chokeholds.

The Chapel Hill Police Department banned chokeholds on Wednesday after failing to do so at the Chapel Hill Town Council's request in June.  

Previously, chokeholds were considered deadly force but were not specifically prohibited. The revised policy manual now states they are specifically prohibited.

In late June, the Chapel Hill Town Council passed a resolution that prohibited chokeholds. This was following the murder of George Floyd when municipalities across the country were discussing the role of police, and the Chapel Hill Town Council heard comments from the public about funding for the police department.

At a June 10 town council meeting, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue addressed specific policy reforms, like chokeholds.

“We believe our policies largely capture these recommendations and that our training and organizational culture do too,” Blue said. “But we’ve also realized there’s an opportunity to more closely and clearly align our policy language with these recommendations.”

However, Chapel Hill police did not update their policy manual to reflect the council's resolution, which was brought up at the Sept. 9 council meeting by council member Karen Stegman.

“I think we’ve seen (chokeholds) used so many times across the country inappropriately and with tragic results,” Stegman said at the meeting. “I think that was the council’s intent to say no, we don’t want this, period.”

At the meeting, Blue cited language used in other police departments across the country as justification for the decision to not put chokeholds in the policy manual. 

Blue also pointed to recommendations from the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, established by Gov. Roy Cooper in June, that recommend police departments allow chokeholds only if necessary to protect the officer's life. 

“No such technique is taught, endorsed, trained, in our organization,” said Blue at the Sept. 9 meeting. “In fact, very few organizations do use those techniques.”

Council member Allen Buansi also expressed concern at the meeting over the policy change not being implemented immediately. He highlighted the police department ending regulatory traffic stops, which was laid out in the same resolution banning chokeholds. 

"I just wonder about the inconsistency here, where with the chokehold prohibition language, you all have said that that is inconsistent with surrounding jurisdictions," Buansi said. "And yet with the prohibition on low-level regulatory stops, no other jurisdiction does that."

The Town of Chapel Hill released a statement Wednesday clarifying its updated policy, which now prohibits chokeholds. 

"In its efforts to formalize the policy the Town fell short in implementing the Council’s stated intention of banning chokeholds in all situations and regrets any concerns that may have been raised," the statement said. "The Police Department has since clarified the policy."

Lucy Britt, a Chapel Hill resident, said she is in support of the chokehold ban.

"I’m glad that with that this summer with the resurgence of (Black Lives Matter) protests that people are really turning their focus to local politics," Britt said. "I think so many important policy decisions are made at the local level that people often aren’t aware of."

The council also approved a new structure for the Reimagining Community Safety Task Force, a task force created to improve racial equity and safety. The task force, first announced in the same June 24 meeting banning chokeholds, is taking applications from Chapel Hill residents.

Stegman over email said there is already a movement across the county calling for elected officials to take action to elevate voices of those who've been impacted by racial inequalities.

“I believe we are ready to do just that and look forward to hearing the recommendations from the taskforce on what re-imagined public safety should look like in Chapel Hill,” she said.

Britt said she is less confident of finding success in the new task force.

“I think ultimately we need more structural reform,” Britt said. “I’m in favor of more radical changes to defund the police and replace most of their services with community care resources. But I think the small reforms that are made should at least be followed by the CHPD.”

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