While the nation debates the police use of a deadly chokehold in New York — and a grand jury’s failure to indict — few have a better perspective on it than Kevin Schmersal and his family.
On Oct. 2, 1989, Henry Schmersal Jr. was subdued by a Mexico police officer who had chased him into the woods to arrest Schmersal for a driving offense. Schmersal died as a result of the confrontation. A medical examiner’s report revealed that his death was due to neck compression at the time of the arrest.
A chokehold, in other words, like the one that killed Eric Garner in New York City.
“It brings back memories,” Kevin Schmersal said Thursday night. “Of course it does. It brings it all back crystal clear for me and for my family. Everything about it.”
Kevin is the brother of the late Henry Schmersal Jr.. In that case, like the one in New York, a grand jury was presented with the evidence and failed to indict the police officer responsible.
“That’s a scar that never left us. We never felt like justice was done,” Kevin Schmersal said. “We never got our day in court.”
In 1989, there was public uproar when no indictment was handed up against Mexico police officer Robert Sloma who had delivered the deadly hold — again, very much like the scene in and around New York today.
“It’s an excessive use of force against someone who wasn’t a threat,” Schmersal said.
A chokehold is excessive, Schmersal makes no bones about that. He has studied up on the controversial move. He has watched the videotape showing the death of Garner many times.
“It’s a deadly use of force,” he said. “It’s been proven time and time again. You’re cutting off blood-flow to the brain. The probability of death is tremendous. It’s lethal.”
Sloma resigned from the police force amid the public outcry. Schmersal’s family sued the officer and other town officials. It was a suit they won.
The Schmersal family has been following the news of Eric Garner’s death since the day they learned of it. The similarities are too striking to ignore.
Kevin Schmersal said he was aware of the growing divide between police across the nation and the people they serve.
“I don’t indict all police officers, I really don’t,” Schmersal said. “I think there are some who go out of their way to do a good job. There’s a lot of rough stuff out there and they have to deal with it.
“But there are also those,” Schmersal said, “who want to flex their muscle. You get someone who’s all jacked up. He’s on a power trip. He wants a gun and he wants power. You end up with problems that way.”
In 1989, it was said that Sloma didn’t learn the chokehold through official avenues; he learned it from another officer on the force. That’s because in Maine, the technique is largely eschewed by police. Up here, it should be a nonissue: Chokeholds are not allowed. Period.
“The Lewiston Police Department does not authorize the use of neck restraints,” according to that department’s policy on use of force, “and does not give instruction to its officers in the use of neck restraints.”
“In addition,” said Lewiston police Lt. Michael McGonagle, “LPD policy states that any use-of-force incident by an officer must be documented and a report completed. Each use-of-force incident must then be reviewed and approved by the immediate supervisor and then through the chain of command to administration.”
Maine State Police are even more terse on the matter: “Chokeholds,” said spokesman Stephen McCausland, “are not allowed.”
Same at the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department. All Maine departments, actually. The state’s Criminal Justice Academy doesn’t instruct its recruits in those techniques.
Generally, most police departments around the country forgo chokeholds, including the NYPD. But that’s little consolation for someone like Schmersal, whose brother died as a result of the hold even though it was not part of that officer’s formal training.
He blames the Us versus Them attitude of some — not all — police officers who exhibit no sense of compassion or compromise.
“There’s very little respect given to the public,” Schmersal said. “It seems to be, ‘You’re going to comply or I’ll force you to comply by whatever means necessary.'”
Famed New Hampshire police officer Massad Ayoob, widely considered an expert in use-of-force scenarios, speaks to the good and bad of chokeholds in his book, “Fundamentals of Modern Police Impact Weapons.”
“It’s not hard to understand,” Ayoob wrote, “why something that renders a man unconscious in seconds with, supposedly, no aftereffects, catches the imagination of lawmen who have to deal with violent physical confrontations.”
That observation comes with a caveat: because of the ability of a chokehold to shut off blood and oxygen to the brain, it carries a long list of dangers.
“The danger of broken necks, crushed throats, strokes, ruptured arteries, seizures, and other life-threatening trauma is great in this supposedly safe technique,” Ayoob wrote. “These things must be considered. The officer who does choose to apply them should be highly trained and skilled in emergency first aid treatment for the injuries that may result.”