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Some Central Coast police departments suspend use of carotid hold, others call it "effective"

Posted at 8:33 AM, Jun 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-18 11:34:01-04

Nationwide calls for police reform are forcing law enforcement agencies to re-examine their use of force policies and several agencies across the Central Coast have chosen to suspend the use of the carotid hold.

The move looks like a chokehold but focuses on restricting blood flow to the brain, rendering the person unconscious.

Many departments are suspending or prohibiting the use of what's called the carotid hold, similar to a chokehold but designed to restrict blood flow and render the person unconscious.

"We talk about George Floyd and I don't think there's a police chief out there that would say that's a proper application of the carotid control hold," Paso Robles Police Chief Ty Lewis said.

Floyd died with his neck under the knee of a Minnesota police officer, who is now facing criminal murder charges.

Video of the unarmed Black man's death sparked outrage and calls for police reform.

But Lewis defends his department's use of the carotid hold when it's used to restrict blood flow, not breath.

"The reason we differentiate and say carotid hold is because typically chokeholds cut the wind off to somebody and stop them from breathing, we don't authorize those types of chokes," Lewis said.

Even so, Lewis and many other Central Coast police chiefs say they rarely use the tactic.

The Paso Robles Police Department records at most two uses each year, according to Lewis.

Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters said his department last used the carotid hold in 2016.

According to Lompoc Police Sgt. Kevin Martin, 1998 is the last time Lompoc police used the tactic.

And San Luis Obispo police tried it once last year without success, according to SLOPD Admin. Capt. Jeff Smith.

"In the last two years, I only know of one incident where it was even attempted to be applied but the individual was fighting so much, officers couldn't apply it," Smith said.

In light of Floyd's death and calls for policy reform, SLOPD, along with Grover Beach police, suspended further use of the carotid hold.

Though Smith said he sees the carotid hold as a useful tool when executed properly, he recognizes the risks involved.

"If it's improperly applied or not used correctly, there is a risk of hitting the windpipe or affecting the individual's ability to breathe," Smith said.

Lompoc's police chief is discussing such a moratorium with the city attorney, according to Martin.

Lewis said his officers are well-trained in the use of the carotid hold and he plans to keep it in his department's arsenal, for now.

"It's extremely effective, in the context in which we use it, it's a less lethal option," Lewis said. "So someone who is resisting or poses a danger to themselves for the community, it's a super effective tool that for the most part doesn't result in any injury to the suspect."

Under Paso Robles Police Department's policy on carotid holds, an officer may use the technique if a person is "violent or physically resisting" or the person "by words or actions has demonstrated an intention to be violent and reasonably appears to have the potential to harm officers, him/herself, or others."

The policy also states that officers should "avoid" using the carotid hold on women who are known to be pregnant, the elderly, minors, and people with Down Syndrome or obvious neck deformities.

The California Police Chiefs Association is re-evaluating whether law enforcement agencies across the state should continue using the carotid hold.

Gov. Newsom has called on California police departments to suspend the use of the tactic and said he would sign a bill prohibiting its use if given the chance.

Lewis said he believes each department requires its own "toolbox" of tactics to use specific to the particular community.

"San Luis Obispo doesn't use K9s, we use K9's," Lewis said. "The policing for that community will be individual."