After seven suspects had died in its custody since 1989, the San Diego Police Department announced Monday that it has adopted a broad new policy that severely restricts the use of neck restraints.
The changes were part of a 4-month study by law enforcement and medical professionals that was prompted by the January death of 16-year-old John Hampton, whom officers tried to subdue by using a "carotid restraint" hold, which deprives the brain of oxygen.
Although the carotid hold will not be abandoned altogether, its use is restricted to occasions in which a violent suspect must be rendered unconscious. Even then, it cannot be applied for longer than 30 seconds and should be used with at least two officers present.
In defending his decision not to ban the restraint outright, Police Chief Bob Burgreen said he would not limit his officers from choosing when to use the restraint.
"Let's be real," Burgreen said. "If you take that tool away, what does an officer have left? Would you rather be rendered unconscious in handcuffs 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."
Of the seven cases that the 26-member Custody Death Task Force examined, two of the suspects died after officers used the carotid hold.
Besides Hampton, police used the restraint on Edgar Paris, a 31-year-old man with a history of mental illness who had barricaded himself in a hotel room last year and had to be wrestled to the ground.
But the death of Hampton, who was visiting his best friend before he began breaking windows in an apparent drug-induced frenzy, caused the department to look more closely at its restraint policies.
Wearing only underwear and talking incoherently, Hampton was subdued with the carotid restraint by two officers. Four other officers arrived and piled on top, handcuffing him and wrapping cord cuffs around his legs. Hampton's breathing was irregular and he was pronounced dead shortly after he arrived at a La Jolla hospital.
One of the officers said he kept the carotid restraint on Hampton for four to five minutes. And a second officer was not monitoring the hold at all times, as the new rules demand.
"Had all of that been in place and we were able to carry that out, the circumstances may have ended quite differently," Burgreen said during a Monday morning news conference.
Hampton's father, Dennis, a senior chief hospital corpsman at the Miramar Naval Air Station, said the department should have recognized the problems with the restraints earlier.
"I haven't seen the study but it's good they finally recognized the need to evaluate their methods," Hampton said. "Unfortunately, they didn't do it earlier. There might have been a lot more people alive today."
Hampton has a wrongful death lawsuit pending against San Diego police.
Following the death of Tony Steele, 31, in custody last October, police revised their "hogtie" policy, in which cord cuffs and handcuffs are tied together behind a suspect.
Now, rather than binding feet and hands together tightly behind a suspect and forming a "bow" in the chest or abdominal cavity, another strap is placed between the feet and hands which gives the suspect room to sit down or be placed on his side. Either way, the suspect has a better chance to breathe, officials said.
In February, police stopped transporting prisoners on their stomachs in the back of police cars. Burgreen announced Monday that the department is equipping 26 patrol cars with special seats to carry handcuffed prisoners. The seats cost $10,000.
The new techniques reduce the possibility of "positional asphyxia," which medical examiners said caused Steele's death because he could not breath while hogtied. Steele had been running down a downtown street, yelling, "They're after me!" when police captured him.
To avoid positional asphyxia, Burgreen has ordered that officers who use their weight to subdue a suspect should get off as quickly as possible and roll the suspect onto his side.
Four other suspects in the past three years died with drugs in their system and their deaths were attributed to "excited delirium," according to the study.
The state of excited delirium describes anyone on drugs who exhibits bizarre and often violent behavior while being restrained by police. Medical experts said those suspects run a great risk of dying suddenly in police custody.
Medical experts said excited delirium contributed to the deaths of Leroy Cleghorn, 28; Leonard Navarra, 40; Perry Smith, 41, and Kurush Kamyaran, 31.
Those with such symptoms "are at risk of dying as a result of the drug they have in their body," said Dr. Brian Blackbourne, the county's chief medical examiner and member of the task force. "Frequently, the police are called because of their activity and when they are encountered by police, they are an increased risk. These people are at risk of dying even without the restraint."
Prisoners who seem to show such hyperactive symptoms should be monitored by two officers, who should be inspecting the suspect's color, breathing and level of consciousness, the new police policy states.
The prisoner should be taken to an emergency medical center before being booked. Those who need to go to a county mental health center and cannot be safely driven in a police car, must be taken in a private ambulance with an officer on board, the new policy states.
Officers will take greater care in listing information about force and prisoner injuries on arrest reports and will be watching training videos that encompass every change enacted by the department, Burgreen said.
All of the changes are either in place or will be part of department policy in the next month or two, the chief said.
The task force sent questionnaires about deaths occurring in custody to 223 law enforcement agencies. Of the 142 who responded, only 48 allow the use of the carotid restraint and five use the "trachea choke hold," which keeps air from moving through the trachea and causes unconsciousness.
Los Angeles police banned the use of the chokehold a decade ago but use a "modified" carotid hold in life-threatening situations. San Diego police have never used a chokehold.
Responding to a task force survey, 715 of San Diego's 1,627 police officers said they used the carotid restraint, for a total of 923 times. Respondents also reported using pain compliance holds 7,788 times, physical strength 6,484 times and their body weight on suspects 3,208 times in the past year.
Sgt. Chris Ellis, in charge of training and development for the San Diego Police Department, said that carotid restraint is probably used about 1,500 times a year.
The new restrictions, he said, will clear up some misunderstandings.
"Now the officers have to use it on someone who is violently resisting or assaultive, whereas before, it was never real clear," Ellis said. "The technique had been used on people who were mildly or passively resisting but the threat was there."
The New Rules for Police Use in Restraining Suspects
Following the deaths of seven suspects in custody during the past three years, San Diego Police Chief Bob Burgreen on Monday announced these new policy changes in restraining criminal suspects:
* The "carotid restraint" hold, which cuts blood flow to the brain, can only be used to render a violent suspect unconscious and not solely to detain a criminal.
* The carotid restraint should not be used for more than 30 seconds, nor more than twice during one encounter with a suspect, and, if possible, should be done with two officers present.
* If an officer must use body weight to handcuff a suspect, he should remove the weight as quickly as possible and roll the suspect into a sitting position.
* At least two officers must transport and monitor "high risk" or hyperactive prisoners with drugs in their systems, and must take them to an emergency room for observation before they are driven to jail.
* Those required to be taken to a county mental health facility and who cannot be transported safely in a police car must be taken in a private ambulance and accompanied by a uniformed officer.
* A suspect injured, rendered unconscious or in medical distress while being restrained must be taken to a hospital.
* All field officers are to receive classroom and on-the-job training for all new department policy changes, including the carotid restraint.
* The department is equipping 26 patrol cars with special seats to transport handcuffed prisoners. The seats cost $10,000.
* Arrest reports and misdemeanor citations will include entries for incidents of force and suspect injuries.