The Los Angeles Police Department is considering reviving a form of the chokehold--effectively banned nine years ago--as a safer tool than the baton in subduing combative suspects in non-life-threatening situations.
Advocates of the chokehold say it can render a subject unconscious but otherwise unharmed within a few seconds, but its detractors say it can kill--and has.
Reconsideration of the controversial hold is an outgrowth of the Christopher Commission report that assessed police practices in the wake of the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King by police officers wielding batons.
The department now is re-evaluating the options an officer has when deadly force is not justified but when voice commands, firm grips or wristlocks have failed to stop a combative suspect.
Police Chief Daryl F. Gates recently appointed a committee composed of 18 officers to consider all options for so-called middle-range uses of force, including the chokehold, as well as stun guns and a chemical spray based on cayenne pepper.
Approval for use of any of these tools would have to come from Gates, who long has said he believes the chokehold is less dangerous than the baton but has been unwilling to endorse it because he remembers when its use became “a symbol of police oppression.” Reintroduction of the chokehold also would need the approval of the reconstituted Police Commission, a civilian panel that effectively banned the tactic in 1982 as too dangerous.
Any attempt to reintroduce the chokehold would likely provoke the wrath of those who fought successfully to eliminate it then.
“The thought of the chokehold as it was applied by the Los Angeles Police Department conjures up some very bad memories, and it resulted in very tragic results, and the principal victims were African-Americans and minorities,” said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. “The chokehold was lethal. . . . The chokehold itself should remain dead and buried.”
But Gates’ committee is believed to support reintroduction of the chokehold.
A recent department survey showed that 92% of officers believe they should have the option of applying a chokehold to combative suspects as an alternative to using their batons, said Cmdr. Michael J. Bostic, the committee chairman.
“I think it would be safe to say that (the members) represent the view of the rest of the department,” said Bostic.
But he said it would be premature to predict what the committee will recommend to Gates. “We need to . . . evaluate the medical, physiological and civil consequences and determine from that what the recommendations are,” he said.
“We may not (recommend a return to the chokehold),” he added, “if physiologically and medically we have the same problems as before.”
Opposition to the chokehold was keenest in minority communities.
Part of the reason for the ban was concern that the hold was used indiscriminately and may have killed as many as 17 people in seven years, although causes of death in most cases were in dispute.
Another reason was that use of the hold was a public relations disaster. Officers used to joke about suspects they subdued with the hold, saying, “You choke them out until they do the chicken,” officers recalled. This was a reference to the involuntary flapping of a subject’s arms and legs as he was being choked.
Some LAPD tactical experts now say they see another public relations disaster--the videotape depicting officers striking King 56 times with batons--as an opportunity to convince the public that subduing someone with a chokehold is actually safer and more humane.
Lt. Fred Nixon, a department spokesman, said he was personally unaware of any deaths from batons, but noted that any time a baton is used, some injury results, even if it is only a bruise. King’s doctors said he sustained numerous broken bones.
The city has said in court papers that “the baton can break bones, sever blood vessels, rupture internal organs and cause heart attacks.”
The chokehold controversy a decade ago peaked with a lawsuit filed by a 24-year black motorist who was stopped by Los Angeles police at 2 a.m. because one of his taillights was out. A federal judge, Robert Takasugi, ruled that the officers used a chokehold on the motorist “without provocation,” rendering him unconscious.
According to the motorist’s lawsuit, as the chokehold was being applied, he “feared for his life, gasped for air, choked, spit up blood, urinated and defecated on himself and almost died. He was thereupon issued a traffic citation and released.”
The motorist’s case--seeking to bar police from using chokeholds--went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, by a 5-4 vote, declined to intervene in what it said was a local affair.
But during the litigation, Gates banned one of the chokeholds then in use--the bar-arm--in which a right-handed officer standing behind a subject would place his right forearm over the subject’s Adam’s apple and the officer’s left hand would grasp his own right wrist and pull it back.
The bar-arm, a variation of a U.S. Army killing technique, was literally a “choking” hold that, by pressing on the trachea, would limit the flow of air until the subject passed out.
The Police Commission in 1982 voted to limit the other form of chokehold in use--the so-called carotid--only to situations in which deadly force was justified. Since officers prefer firing guns in those situations, the carotid hold has fallen into disuse, officials said.
In the carotid maneuver, an officer makes a “V” with his arm around the subject’s neck and squeezes. The idea is actually to constrict the carotid arteries on either side of the neck that carry blood to the brain, rather than to choke. The theory is that when the brain is deprived of enough oxygen, the subject will pass out. Then handcuffs can be applied.
One problem has been that officers in a fight in the field sometimes intend to apply a carotid and wind up damaging the subject’s windpipe by inadvertently applying the more dangerous bar-arm.
To try to solve this problem, Jim Lindell, physical training supervisor at the regional police academy in Kansas City, developed a subtle variation on the carotid which he said makes it mechanically more difficult for the officer to slip into the bar-arm.
He said he believes his method is simpler than that taught in Los Angeles and that officers in Kansas City apply it safely about 20 times a day.
Los Angeles police are now studying his method, which he calls a “neck restraint” on the theory that the carotid is a misnomer because the artery is not what is being squeezed.
Dr. James Cooper, a surgeon in St. Louis and former medical adviser to the police there, said he tested the method in an unpublished study on 20 St. Louis County officers in chairs. “We had the same officer choke them all,” he said.
The technique, he said, constricted veins in the neck but not the carotid artery, which was too well protected.
Cooper said he believes that constricting the veins, which carry blood back to the heart, makes the heart pump faster and with more force. This resulted in lightheadedness for his test subjects, who were allowed to signal when they wanted the choking to stop.
Cooper said he believes that most of those whose deaths have been attributed to chokeholds by coroners have actually succumbed to what doctors call “sudden death syndrome,” in which death occurs unexpectedly in a person who previously seemed healthy.
“The extent of our present knowledge is that discharge of the adrenal glands excites them so much that they develop cardiac arrhythmia and die from that and the heart appears normal,” he said.
The Christopher Commission said that before the department makes any changes in its tactics, “a thorough study by police, medical, scientific, psychological and other appropriate experts should be undertaken as part of a comprehensive evaluation of middle-level use of force options by the department and the Police Commission.”
But Cooper appears to be one of only a handful of physicians who have done any studies on the subject.
“There is no money in law enforcement to do intelligent research,” said Ron McCarthy, a tactics expert and manager of the Center of Advanced Police Studies of the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police.
As a result, he said, small departments follow the big ones like lemmings. “If New York or L.A. or any large police agency does something, everybody follows suit.”
When Los Angeles effectively banned the neck holds, McCarthy said, “other agencies followed suit because police administrators thought, ‘Gee, we don’t want to wind up taking the same kind of criticism.’ ”
This was an overreaction, he said, because chokeholds had been applied to tens of thousands of people without injuring them. “Like any tactic or police equipment, it can be abused,” he said. “If it’s used properly it’s not a problem.”
Bostic, of the LAPD, said his committee is “evaluating all kinds of alternatives (to the baton) and there aren’t a whole lot of them.”
Now, officers have the options of punching or kicking combative suspects or joining with colleagues to swarm over them--or striking them with batons. They also can spray them with canisters of a tear gas-like irritant or shoot them with a Taser, which fires electrodes attached to wires designed to shock the people.
Bostic said he had spoken with people at 50 police departments and police training centers and found little in the way of new technologies for non-deadly force besides improvements in stun guns and a cayenne pepper-based spray.
LAPD Lt. Michael Hillmann, a member of Gates’ committee, is working with manufacturers to develop better ways to deliver the cayenne spray, which causes a subject’s eyes to shut and his windpipe to inflame. Breathing is made difficult, and the subject reflexively bends forward at the waist and covers his eyes, Hillman said.
Hillmann said he believes this will also cut down on the use of the baton. However, he said the California departments of justice and environmental protection are barring the spray in California until all the chemicals in it are proven safe.