clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Cities and states are barring police from using chokeholds and tear gas

Elected officials are banning police chokeholds and the use of tear gas.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Police cars with their lights on drive toward a wall of tear gas.
Police cars are seen in Portland, Oregon, on May 31, as demonstrators are enveloped in tear gas during a protest over the death of George Floyd.
John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Since the start of the nationwide protests against police violence following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a former Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer, protesters and other criminal justice reform advocates have proposed banning the use of tear gas and certain chokeholds. Now, through court orders and policy changes, cities like Minneapolis and Seattle are beginning to adopt those reforms.

The Minneapolis city council voted Friday to ban police from using chokeholds and neck restraints like the one used by the officer in the course of Floyd’s death. They’ve also proposed disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department, and replacing it with a new model of law enforcement focused on community safety.

“My assessment of what is now necessary is shaped by the failure of the reforms we’ve attempted, in the face of opposition from the department and the Police Federation,” wrote City Council Member Steve Fletcher in a Time op-ed Friday.

Details about what the police department’s replacement would look like have not yet been announced, but the chokehold ban will be instituted immediately.

California has also rolled out a chokehold ban — Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday that he would direct police not to use chokeholds in the state. That follows San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit’s Monday announcement of a ban on the use of chokeholds by the city’s police officers.

Those announcements come amid ongoing protests against police brutality — ones that have revealed numerous incidents of police aggression, and that have been characterized by the use of chemical irritants, including pepper balls and tear gas, as methods of controlling largely peaceful crowds.

Viral videos of such incidents, including one of the tear gassing of a peaceful crowd assembled outside the White House, has led protesters and others calling for reform to decry these tactics — and that outcry has begun to lead some cities to issue or consider bans on the use of certain irritants.

For instance, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan banned the use of tear gas by police against protesters and demonstrators in the city for the next 30 days. The Allegheny County Council, which includes Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has proposed legislation defining nonlethal weapons and banning the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, and bean bag rounds. That measure is up for a vote on Tuesday.

New Orleans City Councilmember Jay Banks also proposed banning the use of tear gas during Thursday’s city council meeting. His proposal came after community outcry over the police department’s deployment of tear gas against protesters on a bridge, the Crescent City Connection, Wednesday.

Similarly, Washington, DC, Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau announced Thursday she would be proposing legislation to ban the use of tear gas by district police.

In Denver, Colorado, the judicial system has weighed in on the issue. Friday, a federal judge temporarily banned the city’s police department from using chemical weapons, such as tear gas and pepper spray, as well as projectiles such as rubber bullets, against peaceful protesters.

“The Denver Police Department has failed in its duty to police its own,” Judge R. Brooke Jackson wrote in his ruling. The Denver Police Department said Friday it would comply with the judge’s order.

Portland, Oregon-based advocacy group Don’t Shoot PDX also hopes to have a judge rule on the use of tear gas in that city — Friday, it filed a class-action lawsuit against the city for the police department’s “indiscriminate use” of tear gas.

“We’re out screaming for justice for Black people and asking the state to stop its violence against us, and the City responds by using tear gas when we’re in the middle of a pandemic of respiratory disease,” said Teressa Raiford, a leader of Don’t Shoot PDX.

Calls for banning such weapons have grown as the nation has witnessed numerous gruesome injuries, and, according to a Forbes report, at least 12 deaths from their use by police in attempting to control large crowds this week. Protesters, journalists, and bystanders alike have been left bloody and wounded by police while demonstrating, covering the protests, or simply driving by. Most cities and states have yet to adopt such bans — however, those that have represent a small step toward the larger reforms protesters are calling for.

Bans like these are part of what the protests are about

Broadly, protesters are calling for an end to violent policing, of which the use of chemical irritants is a part.

Tear gas is considered a chemical weapon, and it’s banned from use in military conflicts. But it’s also a “riot-control” weapon, meaning that its use by police in many localities is legal, as explained by Vox’s Jen Kirby:

In the United States, what we call “tear gas” is often CS gas, a chemical compound credited to two American scientists, Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton, who discovered it in 1928. (The C and S in “CS” come from the first initial of each man’s last name.) But its use predates that, to the battlefields of World War I — from where it migrated not long after to America’s police forces. And there it has stayed, ever since.

Mostly because it was ruthlessly effective. It dispersed crowds and could turn a “protest into a screaming mob,” Anna Feigenbaum, an associate professor at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom, told me.

“Because it doesn’t normally leave blood, there’s no trace,” said Feigenbaum, who is the author of the book Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today.

Protesters and bystanders have complained about the negative effects of tear gas, with some saying they’ve received lacerations or broken bones from the canisters, beyond the negative respiratory effects of the gas itself. And as Jason Johnson noted for Vox, the weapons are also dangerous because the heat given off by canisters can — and has — started fires at demonstrations.

But while limits on the use of tear gas are a significant step forward, perhaps the more impactful change comes with the chokehold bans. Banning chokeholds is one of the key police reforms proposed by the 8 Can’t Wait movement, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias explained:

The essence of the campaign is eight procedural rules that Campaign Zero claims “data proves” can conjointly decrease police violence by 72 percent.


When you place a person in a chokehold or a stranglehold, there is always a chance that things will go badly wrong. Instructing officers not to use these holds and training them in other modes of restraint will likely reduce deaths. Shooting at moving vehicles is inherently dangerous, and most departmental guidelines restrict it to some extent, but 8 Can’t Wait calls for banning it altogether.

The Use of Force Project points to research indicating that banning chokeholds and neck restraints would reduce police violence by 22 percent, suggesting the policy — if widely adopted — would be a important step toward meeting protesters’ demands.

Of course, a ban does not necessarily guarantee that police will follow the new rules. Eric Garner, a black man killed by police in 2014, died after police used a banned chokehold technique while arresting him. And that is a reminder that while bans of chokeholds and irritants are a good start, the sort of full police reform demonstrators desire will have to go beyond quick — and sometimes temporary — bans on violent police actions to address underlying and systemic issues of inequality and racism.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.