Advertisement

COLUMN ONE : Politics, Pain and the Police : Anti-abortion protesters decry holds applied by officers during arrests. Their stand has turned liberal and conservative alliances topsy-turvy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A controversial videotape being shown among activists nationwide shows Los Angeles police officers intentionally hurting the nonviolent demonstrators they are arresting.

They press fingers under their noses. They dig their knuckles into protesters’ necks, and torque martial arts weapons around their wrists. At one point, two officers twist a woman’s arm till she rises from the ground, her face wrenched in agony. In another scene, a young man winces as officers lead him along. His arm, contorted behind his back, finally snaps.

The law enforcement name for these techniques is “pain-compliance.” Police departments nationwide say it’s a tried and true way to make uncooperative protesters cooperate. But opponents call the term a euphemism for torture.

Demonstrators have alleged police brutality at least since Freedom Riders launched their sit-down strikes in Alabama almost 30 years ago. This time, however, the outcry--including the videotapes of police in action--comes from anti-abortion protesters with Operation Rescue, whose members tend to see themselves as law-and-order conservatives.

Advertisement

As a result, traditional political alliances have been turned topsy-turvy. Suddenly, some pro-choice liberals are as supportive of the police as conservative hawks were during 1960s demonstrations, while some anti-abortion Republicans are voicing the sort of “police state” rhetoric once associated with anti-war radicals.

In introducing a measure to limit the police use of force in arresting nonviolent protesters, William Armstrong, Colorado’s conservative Republican senator, decried pain-compliance as “something we expect to hear about in Nicaragua or Nazi Germany--but not in the United States of America.”

Other conservative lawmakers have echoed his concerns, and on Nov. 15, with little media attention, President Bush signed legislation withholding certain federal grants from cities whose police use excessive force.

Meanwhile, police officers, many of whom are sympathetic to the anti-abortion cause, claim that religious zeal--and perhaps the use of muscle relaxants--has given Operation Rescue anti-abortion protesters an unusually high tolerance to pain--or even a martyr’s appetite for it.

Advertisement

Caught off guard by an ambush from their conservative allies, police are howling that the new law--which could deprive Los Angeles alone of more than $50 million a year in federal aid--will handcuff them.

“I think it’s utter stupidity,” Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates said. “Utter, complete stupidity.”

In reaction to the uproar, the LAPD is quickly phasing out the term pain-compliance , but not the techniques, which have been used “in civil rights demonstrations, student demonstrations, Vietnam demonstrations . . . all through the ‘60s, all through the ‘70s,” Gates said. He smiled. “You didn’t hear any Republicans complain then, did you?”

While Gates acknowledged that this issue stirs up memories of the controversy about “chokeholds"--a restraint the LAPD now uses only in life-threatening situations as a result of fierce public pressure--he argues that “come-along” techniques, properly used, are the safest, most effective way to arrest nonviolent demonstrators.

Advertisement

His officers, he added, are as well-trained in the use of these holds as any in the country.

On a recent morning, for example, the Los Angeles Police Academy gym echoed with the unmistakable sounds of force being exerted, as pairs of recruits, dressed in dark blue sweats, kicked, jabbed, swung their night sticks, or grappled one another into chokeholds or pain-compliance holds.

Reacting to one phase of the exam, a woman cadet knocked back an assailant’s hand, backed up quickly and leveled her weapon at the man’s chest, shouting: “Put your hands up, lock your elbows, spread your fingers.”

Had this been a real incident, she would have had to decide in a flash of synapses whether “reasonable force” included opening fire with her handgun.

Advertisement

Deadly force is one extreme among the techniques officers must choose from in confronting suspected lawbreakers, explained Sgt. Fred Nichols, the academy’s expert on the use of force. The least forceful tactic is a simple request--"Would you do this?” Pain-compliance techniques fit into the scale above talk but below the use of a Taser gun, tear gas, and the police baton.

Among the most simple “come-along” compliance techniques are twist- and wrist-locks, in which a subject’s arm or wrists are manipulated so that soft tissue and nerves press against bone, Nichols said. Another trick of the trade: the “mastoid lift,” in which officers press the nerves along each side of the neck. Demonstrated on recruits who had seated themselves like protesters on the Academy’s playing field, each of these techniques worked promptly.

But while some Operation Rescue demonstrators use a standard civil-disobedience technique and “go limp” when asked to move, others link arms. They become “human worm-balls” and make themselves tense, rendering standard compliance techniques ineffective, officers say. Trying to carry away protesters in these cases becomes even more dangerous to them and arresting officers, police say.

So LAPD and other police forces around the country, including several in Orange County and the San Diego Police Department, began using a modified martial arts tool called a nunchaku-- now termed a “police control device"--consisting of two 12-inch lengths of plastic connected by a length of nylon.

Advertisement

To demonstrate, instructors jabbed the device between an arm and the chest of a cadet, and twisted it around in what is known as a “trap-and-wrap” maneuver. The gentlest twist triggered enough pain to make the recruit comply promptly.

Nichols is puzzled by those who call pain-compliance excessive force, or compare it to the cattle prods police use in South Africa. Protesters are given every chance to move on their own. Police actually plead with Operation Rescue demonstrators in some cases, he said.

Then “they’re told they’ll be subjected to excruciating pain. It’s a pain control technique,” he said. “It’s going to hurt. That’s what pain - compliance means.”

But protesters in Los Angeles and elsewhere assert that the nunchakus and more conventional come-along holds produced not only agony while being applied, but lingering pain, broken bones, torn ligaments, and, in some cases, long-lasting nerve damage. As a result, they have filed lawsuits against police in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Atlanta and other cities.

Advertisement

Nichols and other officers are suspicious of Operation Rescue’s charges.

“The first time pressure is applied, most people fall to the ground,” Nichols said. “With Right-to-Lifers, you feel something’s rotten in Denmark. It’s kind of like watching a movie where someone gets shot 10 times and keeps walking. You say, something’s wrong here.”

In the 25 years that he has been a policeman, Capt. Patrick E. McKinley of LAPD’s Metro Division has worked at demonstrations by the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Jewish Defense League, and at protests for or against everything from apartheid to animal rights. Operation Rescue protesters stand out, he said.

“Pain for many of the demonstrators is a catharsis for past failure to take action against abortion,” he said in a sworn statement last August, given as part of a court challenge against pain-compliance devices.

Advertisement

Nichols and others have alleged that some demonstrators simply take muscle relaxants to increase their tolerance--a charge an Operation Rescue spokeswoman called “100% incorrect.”

In either case, the results are dangerous, said McKinley. “I’m no doctor. But pain has a purpose. It’s telling you to stop doing what you’re doing. If you don’t respond to pain, and it is applied with more force, injuries are possible.”

In fact, injuries have been mounting ever since police and Operation Rescue protesters squared off at the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta. As Operation Rescue built momentum, engaging in civil disobedience at clinics around the country, the allegations of police brutality increased:

* In San Diego, an officer reportedly moved through the demonstrators singing: “Don’t try to understand ‘em, just round ‘em up and brand ‘em.”

Advertisement

* In Pittsburgh, women claimed they were sexually molested by officers.

* In West Hartford, Conn., officers removed their badges and name tags--purportedly to avoid cutting demonstrators--and then allegedly hauled protesters away with come-along holds, by lifting them with sharp-edged plastic handcuffs, or with “crotch carries” in which a night stick is stuck between the protester’s legs. A priest testified that the police seemed to enjoy inflicting pain: “The demonic element entered in here.”

A woman arrested this year in Los Angeles said: “By the time they got my arms all the way back the pain was so intense I was just screaming . . . ‘Jesus! Jesus!’ ”

In demonstrations in those cities and others, including Boston, Atlanta and Denver, protesters alleged that officers continued to apply come-along holds after demonstrators had complied with their commands, administering pain as a form of “curbside justice.”

Advertisement

Implicit in the protesters’ complaints is a sense that they have been betrayed by kindred spirits.

“It wasn’t at all like the old anti-war demonstrations where people were calling the police pigs, being belligerent,” said Dan Bruno, an accountant for the city of Orange, whose right wrist was broken at a March 25 Los Angeles demonstration. “Frankly, I lead a very middle-class life. I’ve never been roughed up like that before. Maybe I just got a little insight into what it was like to be a black demonstrating for civil rights.”

Operation Rescue has not gone limp after its encounters with police. Rather, leaders began an aggressive letter-writing campaign, encouraging those who felt they had been abused and people who saw videotapes of the abuse to file complaints against the officers, and write to their senators, congressmen, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. A group called Pro-Life Police was formed, and a member testified that he had witnessed “real atrocities” by the LAPD.

But others said the LAPD had behaved with restraint. For example, feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, never hesitant to criticize official abuses, said she believes police acted with professionalism last March, issuing fair warnings and acting only after demonstrators failed to comply.

Advertisement

“I can’t have much sympathy for them,” she said of the anti-abortion “rescuers,” as she stood among a vociferous group of pro-choice “clinic defenders” at a Dec. 9 demonstration and counterdemonstration in Fullerton. “The pain inflicted on women’s lives by Operation Rescue people is enormous. What they are suffering in pain-compliance is a drop in the ocean compared to what we’ve endured in exercising our constitutional rights.”

At demonstrations, throngs of pro-choice demonstrators, some of whom might well have been on the wrong end of night sticks in another era, watched the police twist protesters’ arms and chanted: “L.A. blue, we’re with you.”

Chief Gates, an outspoken conservative, does not bask in this new-found support. “I felt like the people in the stands were cheering as we threw the Christians to the lions,” he said.

In fact, the emotional volatility of the abortion issue has shaken the way many think in the debate over police uses of force.

Advertisement

Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff has skewered liberal civil libertarians for letting their ideology stop them from supporting anti-abortion protesters’ fight to restrain what he calls “the torture police.” He also has charged that his media colleagues have turned their backs on the uncomfortably complex issue.

William B. Allen, a controversial Ronald Reagan appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, has similar views: “We like to value tolerance. But you never know how tolerant you are until you’re challenged on something you care about. This issue has touched some very raw nerves, and we find we’re not as tolerant as we pretend to be.”

At a commission briefing on police brutality charges, organized by Allen in September, Robert McCue, chief of the West Hartford police, defended his officers.

“I have never heard of training that consists of using stretchers for one class of prisoner and come-along holds for others based on the motivation of a crime,” he said. “All I want my officers to think of at the time that they’re taking somebody into custody is the resistance to the arrest. I don’t want them concerned with abortions, nuclear freezes, saving the whales or whatever.”

Advertisement

Even before the commission met, conservative lawmakers were joining Sen. Armstrong in lashing out against police pain-compliance tactics and pushing legislation to restrain them.

Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove) read into the Congressional Record a column by William F. Buckley Jr. comparing the West Hartford demonstrations to civil rights demonstrations in Alabama three decades ago: “It is hard to believe that Bull Connor, directing white redneck policemen, caused more brutality in the treatment of blacks than was caused by the police of West Hartford in their treatment of members of Operation Rescue.”

An amendment introduced by conservative lawmakers in the House and Senate, and tagged onto a HUD bill later signed by the President, states that no Community Planning and Development grants may be paid “to any municipality that fails to adopt and enforce a policy prohibiting the use of excessive force by law enforcement agencies within the jurisdiction of said municipality against any individuals engaged in nonviolent civil rights demonstrations.”

Los Angeles received almost $56 million in such grants in fiscal year 1989.

Advertisement

“This is what the Democrats used to do all the time, blackmailing cities into doing what the federal government wants it to do,” said Gates. “Now we’ve got Republicans doing it.”

The Justice Department already investigates charges of police abuse, Gates pointed out. But if this “horrendous” new measure has its intended effect, eliminating the use of painful control techniques in nonviolent demonstrations, his department may have no choice but to watch as demonstrators of any stripe take over any facility they choose, he said.

Carol Sobel, staff attorney for the Los Angeles Chapter of the ACLU, shares Gates’ assessment that the government acted in this case because conservative lawmakers were sympathetic to the anti-abortion cause.

But, unlike Gates, she believes that using pain-compliance against any nonviolent demonstrator is often “barbaric,” and she supports restraints on the police.

Advertisement

Sobel was “amused” at how quickly lawmakers addressed complaints of police brutality that, she said, have been raised for years by protesters against U.S. policy in El Salvador by members of the Revolutionary Communist Party and other groups generally viewed less sympathetically by conservatives.

Still, she believes the new measure will help assure “that the cost of demonstrating in this town doesn’t escalate. I just hope conservatives remember that it includes everyone.”

Jim Cady in the Times Editorial Library assisted in the research for this article.

* NEW USE FOR OLD TOOL

Advertisement

An ancient Asian farm tool has become a cutting edge weapon for many police officers in Southern California. E1.


Advertisement