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Sparked by George Floyd death, Wooster police change policy for chokeholds and no-knock warrants

Two demonstrators in Wooster. One carries a Black Lives Matter sign. Another carries a sign calling for a ban on chokeholds and other police reforms.
Wayne County Racial Justice Coalition
Since June 2020, residents have gathered daily at the Wooster Town Square to call for racial justice and police reform in light of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Wooster's new policy puts restrictions on using chokeholds and no-knock warrants but does not ban the techniques.

After two years of conversations with community members sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, the Wooster Police Department has changed its policies for using chokeholds and other controversial techniques that can result in death, according to a joint news release from police and several community groups.

The policy now includes more restrictions for chokeholds and carotid holds, as well as no-knock warrants, where police break into a suspect’s home without announcing themselves first, according to the release.

The reform effort began in June 2020 following two high profile police killings: Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis in May 2020 after an officer pinned him down with a knee on his neck for more than nine minutes, and Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by police during a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020.

“About a week or two after George Floyd was killed, that was the first time we had a meeting with the Wooster Police Department to ask them questions about what their policies were about some of these issues,” said Désirée Weber, a member of the Wayne County Racial Justice Coalition who worked with police on the changes.

“They were willing and open to change. Some of those practices weren’t in daily use at all … so those were things that they were obviously much more amenable to changing,” she said.

Techniques police use to restrain a suspect are often defined by state and federal law, and certain standards must be met for an officer to legally use them.

Under Wooster’s new policy, carotid holds – a technique in which an officer compresses the sides of a person’s neck to restrict blood-flow – and chokeholds are now classified as “uses of deadly force” in the police department’s manual. This means they now have the same legal restrictions as firing a weapon, Weber said.

Wooster officers are not trained to do carotid holds, and they were previously not present or defined in the manual, according to the release.

Additionally, police must now meet tighter criteria for no-knock warrants to be approved.

The default policy is “knock and announce” warrants, where police announce themselves, that are served during the daytime, Weber said.

Wooster police have not conducted a no-knock warrant in 10 years, according to the release. No-knocks are typically used when police believe a suspect may attempt to hide evidence if they know police are there. But these warrants have been criticized in recent years after incidents in which suspects or police officers were injured or killed in the course of serving the warrant.

Although the Wooster police did not commonly use these techniques, Weber said the policy changes provide more guidance for the police and help the public to hold the department accountable in the future.

“It lets the rest of the community know that these are standards by which the police officers are trained and expected to interact with the residents of Wooster,” Weber said.

“The community in Wooster can now know that their police department A, doesn’t use some of these techniques, and B, has a really high standards if and when, in dire circumstances, these techniques would ever have to be used.” 

The policy changes were compiled based on data collected through local public records requests and other research, with the help of retired attorney Rick Helmuth of the Wooster/Orrville NAACP, she added. Juanita Greene, president of the NAACP chapter, was also involved in the process.

Police Chief Matt Fisher said in the news release that although the community members, activist groups and police did not always agree in the two years of conversations, he hoped Wooster’s police reform can be an example to other communities.

“Members of the coalition have been thoughtful and understanding about the difficult job law enforcement has today,” Fisher said in the release. “Everyone at our meeting was willing to listen, consider a different perspective, and work towards a common goal of making Wooster, Ohio, safe for residents and law enforcement officers.”

Weber and others involved in the coalition hope to continue working with police on additional proposed changes, such as advocating for more diversity in the department’s hiring.

They are also hoping to work with other nearby law enforcement agencies, including the Wayne County sheriff's office and Orrville and Rittman police, to make similar policy changes, Weber said.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.