Choke Holds: A Police Perspective Part 2/3

Today we’re continuing with a three part series on police choke holds from a law enforcement officer’s perspective. 


This is Part II which covers the physiology and mechanism of these strikes. Great details for authors to use in their novels. You can find Part I here.

Welcome back, Karl!

Getting into the physiology of choke-hold techniques would be good background information for the writer/reader as well. First off, let’s clarify one thing. The police don’t “choke” people. Choking implies obstructing a person’s airway and limiting their ability to breath. Because a person can hold their breath for several minutes when calm, or even a mere twenty to thirty seconds while in the midst of a fight, this would be a bad technique for incapacitating someone.

The officer would not only have to apply enough strength to cut off the airway (which is a lot), but also overpower the target long enough for that person to lose consciousness. Using a technique that requires literally all of the officer’s own personal strength for twenty to thirty seconds is not feasible.

What the police actually do, and what you see in MMA, is generally one of several different carotid restraints. Blocking off the blood to a person’s brain at the point of the neck can cause a person to pass out in only a few seconds and requires far less strength to apply correctly. But again, the effects last only a few seconds.

In MMA and in police training, the technique usually involves applying external pressure to the carotid arteries, while not actually interfering with the person’s ability to breath. Some simple internet searching would provide names and a detailed explanation of the techniques for the author to use in their writing.

PLEASE NOTE: Many police departments actually frown upon use of carotid restraints in response to anything less than a serious attack, or even a lethal force situation, because it is very dangerous and can cause death. The police generally don’t have an MMA referee right there watching, telling the officer when to release the restraint and there’s no team of medics standing in the wings ready to immediately render aide, like there is in the world of MMA.


When talking about a strike to a nerve center with the goal of causing incapacitation, there are generally three proven techniques.

The first is called the brachial plexus stun. This is a strike aimed at a massive nerve complex in a person’s neck. The target is about half way between the shoulder and jaw bone and just forward of the major neck muscles on the side of a person’s neck. You can easily find the area by kneading the tips of your fingers deep into the skin of the described area. You’ll find that one spot that is dramatically more painful under the same amount of pressure than the areas around it.  That’s the brachial plexus nerve center.

The strike can be delivered with a normal closed fist punch, an open palm strike, or a forearm strike. If done correctly, the strike literally overloads the brain with pain and causes something akin to an electrical surge that will stun the attacker, make them get weak in the knees and possibly cause a very temporary loss of consciousness.

The police officer must take advantage of these few seconds to put handcuffs on the attacker or get them into some kind of restraint hold that will prevent the attacker from continuing to fight when they get their senses back.

The second technique is known as the, “Gerber Slap.”  This is an open palm strike targeted at the base of the skull, right where those big muscles on the back of the neck attach. The person delivering the strike is trained to slightly cup the hand, so the pressure of the strike actually comes through the fingertips and from the meaty part at the base of one’s palm. Similar to the brachial plexus stun, this causes a massive sensory overload in the brain and a stunning effect, or even a temporary loss of consciousness.

The last one is called the, “Super Scapula Stun.”  This is a strike that you might commonly associate with Hollywood, when the secret agent walks up behind the target and delivers a sharp, Karate type chop, with the blade of their hand, to the target’s shoulder and the target falls to the floor, unconscious.

In reality, it is much harder to pull off and requires significantly more force and pressure than Hollywood ever depicts. The target for the super scapula is the meaty portion of the trapezius muscles, within a couple inches of the neck. The strike is delivered in a downward and inward motion, usually with a closed fist, hammer like motion (as if to stab downward at the target with a knife).

For the best results, both fists should be used, striking at both sides (left and right) simultaneously. Police are often trained that if the target is standing, jumping up to deliver the strike from a higher position is preferred. The police are also trained to kick the target in the back of the legs hoping to drop them to their knees before delivering the strike, again allowing for a strike to come from above. The reason is simple combat physiology. You can hit something harder using that hammer fist strike that is well below shoulder level, than something which is at or above shoulder level.

We’ll conclude with Part III next Tuesday.

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Deputy Karl Mai is a 16 year veteran of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado Springs, CO.  He has mostly worked street patrol and as a Field Training Officer (FTO), but has also worked in the county jail and as a Detective.

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