Chokeholds have been banned from use by Delaware police officers--unless an officer reasonably believes there is an imminent danger to either their own life or the life of a civilian.
Governor John Carney signed the legislation into law Thursday during a virtual press conference.
"This is an important piece of legislation for two reasons," the governor said. "One: it's impactful in terms of directing our law enforcement officers across our state about what's appropriate use of force and banning something that wasn't good policing practice in the first place and, secondly, it is symbolic in confirming our commitment to criminal justice reform as the first in a series of initiatives raised by the Legislative Black Caucus."
A chokehold performed by an on-duty officer is classified as "aggravated strangulation," and punishable as a Class D felony, unless the officer causes serious physical injury or death, at which point it becomes a Class C felony. The law, however, includes language that says a chokehold is justifiable only when the officer reasonably believes deadly force is necessary to protect law enforcement or civilian life.
"We have more difficult work to do, frankly, going forward, than this piece of legislation--which in some ways is is common sense, and also a practice that was seldom used, although used in occurrences like the George Floyd tragedy," Carney said. "We thank our law enforcement officers across our state for their attention to this. The most important thing that we do in government, generally, is to protect the safety of every one of our citizens. We can't do that without the trust and confidence of all members of the community. Law enforcement is most effective when working...in cooperation with members of the community."
Delaware State Representative Nnamdi Chukwuocha, primary sponsor of the bill, said he wanted law enforcement officers to know this was not an "anti-police measure," first and foremost.
"This is truly about understanding what's happening in our nation. As a proud member of our military service, I have great respect and admiration for all of our law enforcement agencies and officers throughout our state," Chukwuocha said. "This is truly about eliminating [chokehold] use and making sure that our officers do not engage in unlawful abuse of power. We truly believe that House Bill 350 is a life-saving piece of legislation."
Not everyone was satisfied with the law. One of the biggest detractors was activist Coby Owens, who led the largest Black Lives Matter protest in Delaware. He previously expressed his belief the legislation didn't go far enough, and called for a true end to chokeholds at the first Law Enforcement Officer Accountability Task Force meeting.
"It should have been banned flat-out," he said. "I hope that this task force is not just for show. I hope that you actually listen to the community activists."
That accountability was being taken seriously, state Senator Elizabeth Lockman said, and this legislation is about holding people accountable for their actions.
"I think that lack of accountability has been just as unfair to our many law enforcement officers who have committed themselves to protecting and serving, and who do this work with integrity and compassion and grace," Lockman said. "I believe this legislation, and what else will flow from [Representative Franklin D.] Cook's Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force should be in their best interest as well, because it's not just about the violent harm that an individual in our society might visit upon another. It's also about who gets held accountable for doing that harm, and who might be excused from such accountability, and what we're saying, I think, with this legislation and others, is that no one should be even law enforcement."
Previous head of the Delaware State Police and new Secretary of Safety and Homeland Security Nathaniel McQueen said anything that helps drive home the importance of the preservation of life with police is important.
"Anything we can do to hold officers accountable, to make sure that they have the proper training, to make sure that they are mindful of what those laws are and what they represent, and their duty to uphold those laws is important to every citizen," he said. "I know that those changes will continue to come, but those changes come with a partnership with our community."
It was the most important message officials in Delaware could send to every resident of the First State, Delaware Attorney General Kathleen Jennings said.
"We saw the brutality and tragedy up close and personal that these kinds of holds can inflict, in the horrific killing of George Floyd," she said. "By banning chokeholds in Delaware, we send a strong message, not only about the unlawful nature of that type of behavior by the police officer who killed George Floyd, but also about the value, the importance we place in Delaware on human life."