Under fire for a videotape showing an officer punching a suspect repeatedly in the face, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Friday that he is directing officers not to use the term “distraction strike” to describe when officers hit people to get them to submit to arrest.
The chief said, however, he is not changing the policy that allows officers to use force; he is only doing away with the term, which he called “ambiguous.” He said it had been misused by officers to explain why they struck a suspect.
The term, he said, was developed to describe a punch or open-hand strike intended to divert a suspect’s attention to where the blow lands so the officer can transition to another technique for completing the arrest.
“However, the usage of the term ‘distraction strike’ has been misapplied to describe strikes intended to cause the suspect to submit to arrest or stop an offensive action when there was no intent to transition to another technique,” Bratton wrote in a letter Friday to the Police Commission.
Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who has advised the commission on force issues, said the chief was doing the right thing.
“He is countering the informal use-of-force culture,” Rice said. “It’s code, and it’s very imprecise. It means, ‘whatever use of force I did was OK.’ ”
Officials said the elimination of the term was proposed before a videotape surfaced that showed an officer in a Hollywood arrest punching a suspect five times in the face.
After that incident appeared on the website YouTube, Gary Ingumenson, independent counsel for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said the officers appeared to have been using distraction strikes, which he said is a permissible tactic for subduing a resistant suspect.
Some officials said the punches were thrown because the officers believed that the suspect was reaching for one of their gun belts. Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said the term should not be used to describe punches to the face of a suspect reaching for a gun belt so that the arrest can be completed.
He said elimination of the term is meant to force officers to describe their actions in greater detail. Too many officers appearing before the department’s Use of Force Review Board were saying in their defense that they used distraction strikes.
With the term abolished, officers now will be asked to give a more descriptive account, McDonnell said.