A tense moment occurred at the September 9 Chapel Hill Town Council meeting, when council member Karen Stegman confronted Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue over the police department’s quiet revision of the town council’s ban on chokeholds, earlier this summer.
The original ban was prompted by mounting community demands to defund the police. In response, the town council had passed a June 24 resolution that included a series of changes in the Chapel Hill Police Department; among them, the authorization of deadly force “only when there is clear and convincing evidence of imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury” and a ban on chokeholds, “effective immediately.”
But it became clear that the police department had ignored the directive to ban chokeholds at the September 9 meeting. About an hour into that meeting, Stegman asked why the police department’s policy manual had revised the ban and included chokeholds in the definition of “admissible force.”
“I believe it reflects the interest of the council while also being practical in its application,” Blue said, defending his interpretation of the ban by stating that it was “consistent with language we’re finding across the country.”
“With all due respect, I’m not sure it does meet Council’s interest,” Karen Stegman responded, looking shocked.
“If we’re going to reconsider that,” Stegman said, “I think that should probably come back to the council for further discussion.”
Ever since the memorial day killing of George Floyd—when a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes—the use of chokeholds has become a distinct flashpoint in the national discussion of police violence. Across the country, several major police departments, including the LAPD and the NYPD, have reconsidered their policies and instituted bans, and variations of bans, on neck restraints.
But studies have shown that a light ban on chokeholds, or a ban that allows the use of neck restraints at officer discretion, is ineffective and does not significantly lessen the use of the technique. Other policies aside, the vote of Chapel Hill’s elected officials left no room for interpretation: chokeholds were meant to be banned, period.
“We had a pretty robust discussion about this particular provision and the exact language we wanted,” council member Allen Buansi told Chief Blue.
Shortly after the meeting, a petition began circulating that urged the council and Mayor Pam Hemminger to enact the original policy that had been voted on.
“This issue doesn’t need to be brought back to council; the vote you took in June needs to be enforced,” the petition, which gained 196 signatures, read. “If that doesn’t happen, what confidence do the residents have regarding future votes you take on issues related to policing—or on any issue, for that matter?”
A follow-up September 16 Town of Chapel Hill press release noted that the “Town fell short in implementing the Council’s stated intention of banning chokeholds.” The department’s formal position on chokeholds was finally clarified with a written notice that “The use of neck restraints, carotid restraints, and chokeholds restrict the blood flow to the brain and may cause unconsciousness or death. Therefore, they are specifically prohibited.”
At the September 9 meeting, the town council also unanimously approved making Juneteenth a paid holiday and went over plans for creating a racial equity and safety task force.
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