San Diego police Chief David Nisleit announced Tuesday that his department would not ban the use of a controversial neck hold known as a “carotid restraint” but would make policy changes regarding how often officers are trained in the technique and when to call for medical assistance.
Nisleit explained the changes at a meeting of the Community Review Board on Police Practices, an oversight board that’s limited in power, but can make policy recommendations to the San Diego Police Department.
In May, the Community Review Board recommended the removal of the carotid restraint technique as an option for officers dealing with someone displaying “active resistance behavior.” But the board recommended it be kept as a use-of-force option against suspects displaying “assaultive or life-threatening behavior.”
Nisleit did not accept the suggestions outright, and instead proposed a series of other recommendations — as outlined in a memo to the review board — which he said reflect “the need to take into consideration concerns expressed by the community, while continuing to provide officers from our Department with the tools to prevent the occurrence of deadly force situations whenever possible to safeguard lives.”
First among those recommendations was to make clear within the department’s policies as well as to the public that a carotid restraint is different than a chokehold. The latter is already banned by department policy and will continue to be off-limits.
The chief explained that the key difference between the two neck restraints has to do with where pressure is applied.
A chokehold puts pressure on the front of the neck and throat, cutting off air, while a carotid restraint targets the vascular veins on the side of the neck and cuts off blood to render someone unconscious “very, very quickly,” Nisleit said.
According to the Police Department, San Diego officers used the carotid restraint 406 times between 2013 and 2017, an average of 81.2 times per year.
The policy changes announced by Nisleit Tuesday will also “require medical examinations (of suspects) following each application of the carotid restraint.” Current policy required that only suspects who exhibit symptoms of medical distress or those who are rendered unconscious by the carotid restraint are required to be examined medically.
Policy language will also change to require officers to de-escalate situations, when possible, before using force, according to Nisleit. Officers will also be required to intervene and then immediately report to a supervisor if they observe another officer using excessive force.
And officers will be trained on how and when to use the restraint every year instead of every two years, Nisleit told the community review board and community members gathered at the City Heights Weingart Library.
The carotid restraint technique will continue to be prohibited, as it is now, to be used on the elderly, “obvious juveniles” and pregnant women.
A group of activists from the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego said at a news conference before Tuesday’s announcement that the policy changes do not go far enough.
Yusef Miller from the San Diego branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said the Racial Justice Coalition wants “a complete ban on this chokehold.”
The activists used the terms chokehold and carotid restraint interchangeably and reject the notion that one is dangerous enough to ban while the other is safe enough for officers to deploy.
“This chokehold is ineffective. It’s aggressive and it’s deadly when used wrong,” Miller said.
Attorney Alara Chilton, immediate past-president of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, called for an “all-out ban” on the carotid restraint.
“The challenge is that when a person is met with this kind of (restraint), that person becomes (too) difficult to (have it) applied safely,” Chilton said. “It is our position that you cannot apply it safely, because that person would be moving, and it would be very difficult to reach the appropriate artery to safely cut off the circulation.”
Chilton said there’s been “a lot of trauma and injury that results when this technique is applied.”
In his presentation to the Community Review Board, Nisleit said his department has had no in-custody deaths linked to the carotid restraint since 1992. In that case, 16-year-old John Hampton died after officers used a carotid restraint to subdue him.
Hampton’s death led to a study by the Police Department that found that seven suspects died in San Diego police custody between 1989 and 1992, including two who died after officers used the carotid hold, according to a Los Angeles Times article from August 1992. The department also issued stricter guidelines then on when and how police could use the carotid restraint.
Then-police Chief Bob Burgreen defended the carotid restraint in 1992, telling the Times that “If you take that tool away, what does an officer have left? Would you rather be rendered unconscious . . . or have an officer come at you with a (baton) and beat you until your bones break? In a real-world situation, those are the options and those are the only options.”
Nisleit and other police officials echoed those concerns Tuesday, saying that if officers were barred from using the carotid hold, they might have to resort to more violent means of suppression.
Nisleit said data his department received from the Los Angeles Police Department showed that doing away with the carotid restraint option led to a more than 600-percent increase in injuries to suspects, and a more than 500-percent increase in injuries to officers.
But the activists from the Racial Justice Coalition — who said that use of force by police, including the carotid restraint, disproportionately targets people and communities of color — were unswayed by the argument that removing the carotid restraint option would make injuries more likely.
“The carotid restraint is used as deadly force,” said Bishop Cornelius Bowser, a pastor and the co-founder of the Community Assistance Support Team, who also said stricter regulations of when the hold can be used won’t protect communities of color.
“You look at implicit biases, especially black people, throughout this city, this county and this nation, we are always viewed as dangerous, as hostile, as threatening and as a criminal,” Bowser said. “And so if (we) roll our eyes or talk back, it can be seen as a threat to that officer.”Clovis Honore, first vice president of the San Diego chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said his organization “stands in complete support of the total elimination of the chokehold or carotid restraint.” Honore said he hoped the incremental changes announced Tuesday would “continue to move to the complete elimination and ban” of the carotid restraint.