Justice Department Limits Chokeholds and “No-Knock” Warrants


The U.S. Department of Justice has adopted new department-wide policies that explicitly prohibit the use of chokeholds, carotid restraints, and no-knock warrants in most circumstances.

The policies were announced last week in a memo from the deputy attorney general. They apply to all Justice Department law enforcement agents and correctional officers, including state and local officers participating in federal task forces.

“As members of federal law enforcement, we have a shared obligation to lead by example in a way that engenders the trust and confidence of the communities we serve,” Deputy Attorney General Monaco said in a statement. “It is essential that law enforcement across the Department of Justice adhere to a single set of standards when it comes to ‘chokeholds,’ ‘carotid restraints’ and ‘no-knock’ entries. This new policy does just that and limits the circumstances in which these techniques can be used.”

The policy changes were prompted by “a number of recent tragedies” and come more than a year after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many more unarmed Black people sparked global protests against police violence and systemic racism.

Chokeholds—which restrict breathing—and the carotid restraint technique—which limits blood flow to the brain—have “too often led to tragedy,” the deputy attorney general wrote.

The world saw what the department called an “inherently dangerous” technique in action when the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd was captured on video. The bystander footage showed then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, choking him until he lost consciousness.

The new policy prohibits the use of chokeholds and carotid restraints unless deadly force is authorized. Officers may use deadly force “only when necessary, that is, when the officer has a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person.”

The department also limited the use of no-knock warrants like the one Louisville police were executing when they shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her home on March 13, 2020.

Acknowledging the risk they pose to both law enforcement and civilians, the new policy limits no-knock entries to only those instances where physical safety is at stake. Agents must knock and announce their presence even if they believe it could result in the destruction of evidence, the memo emphasizes, except in rare circumstances.

Agents must now have “reasonable grounds to believe at the time the warrant is sought that knocking and announcing the agent’s presence would create an imminent threat of physical violence to the agent and/or another person” and must obtain approval from their supervisor and a federal prosecutor before asking a judge for a no-knock warrant.

Justice Department policies don’t apply to the thousands of local police departments across the U.S., but federal law enforcement can set an important example of “best practices” for local departments, many of which have already enacted bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

The Washington Post reported this month that at least 32 of the nation’s 65 largest police departments have banned or strengthened restrictions on the use of neck restraints since George Floyd was killed.