After calls of “I can’t breathe” rang out through streets thronged with protesters, cities across the country began to limit the use of chokeholds and neck restraints by their police officers this summer.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs hopes Spokane will join them.
Beggs proposes prohibiting the use of neck restraints that restrict blood flow to a person’s brain, unless it is justified as a use of deadly force.
The tactic is dangerous if applied incorrectly and, even if done by the book, poses serious risk to a person with a preexisting medical condition, Beggs said.
The chance of death “might be low, but if you’re the one who dies or your loved one dies, it’s big,” Beggs said. “I want to limit neck restraints, essentially, to times when it’s used as an alternative to shooting people.”
The limitation on neck restraints was among dozens of changes to Spokane policing Beggs proposed in a 24-point resolution last month. The council has not yet voted on the proposal.
The resolution is wide in its scope and addresses independent police oversight, negotiations with the police union, response to protests and more. As with neck restraints, Beggs’ proposal would also label the bite of a police dog as a use of deadly force.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward simultaneously proposed a police reform resolution that did not include a neck restraint restriction, nor several of the other new policies Beggs has suggested, though it did share many of its goals.
Both Beggs and Police Chief Craig Meidl are hopeful they can reach a compromise.
“I believe our police, like much of the nation, are reexamining their practices and looking to other departments. … I’m confident as time goes on and they look at that, they’ll be open to reexamining (the policy),” Beggs said.
In a statement to The Spokesman-Review, Meidl welcomed a dialogue with the City Council and a review of its data on use of lateral neck restraints. He said the neck restraint is used “sparingly and with extreme discretion.”
The department “has significant data on its use and effectiveness that will be an important part of the dialogue with the Council and community around police reform measures,” Meidl said.
Spokane is far from the only city in America questioning the use of neck restraints following the death of George Floyd, who cried out “I can’t breathe” as Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes in Minneapolis.
Beggs points to a recent analysis by the Washington Post, which found that 26 of the largest 65 police departments in the United States limited neck restraints or chokeholds following Floyd’s death in May, and that 35 prohibit the type of restraint allowed under Spokane Police Department policy.
The neck restraint’s defenders have long argued that the tactic is relatively safe and effective at achieving quick compliance from the person subjected to it, preventing a situation from escalating into greater use of deadly force.
But Dr. Bill Smock, police surgeon with the Louisville Metro Police Department, told the Post “there is no such thing as making it safe with proper training.”
“Any pressure to the neck is dangerous and can cause serious physical injury, rips to the artery, damage to the internal organs, stroke and death,” Smock said. “I don’t care what you call pressure to the neck, it is all strangulation, and it is all dangerous.”
Minneapolis, Denver, Houston and Washington D.C. have all adjusted their policies on neck restraints in recent weeks.
Although they are not explicitly banned, the Spokane Police Department does not train its officers to use chokeholds, in which the officer restricts a person’s airway by applying pressure to the front of the neck. But it does teach its officers the lateral vascular neck restraint, also known as a carotid hold, which restricts blood flow to the brain.
Spokane breaks down the neck restraints into two levels.
The first is less severe, while in the second the officer applies more pressure and intentionally attempts to render the person unconscious. The person is typically unconscious for about five to 20 seconds, according to police department spokeswoman Julie Humphreys.
“It’s enough time for officers to place those restraints on a subject,” Humphreys said.
In 2019, the Level 1 neck restraint was the most common use of force employed by Spokane police. It accounts for 30% of the 736 documented uses of force from 2013 to 2018. (The Level 1 neck restraint was not tracked until 2016.)
Officers reported using the lighter Level 1 neck restraint in 30 of the 117 reported uses of force in 2019.
They used a Level 2 neck restraint, aiming to force the person to pass out, 11 times. The Level 1 neck restraint was used more than stun guns.
None were found to be out of compliance with department policy when reviewed by department leaders.
Beggs’ proposal, taken as a whole, could reshape what options Spokane police officers have for less lethal force. The department’s K9 unit has warned that his proposal to categorize dog bites as deadly force would backfire, and that the deployment of dogs can help prevent a situation from escalating to the point where the use of a firearm is necessary.
“The fewer intermediate force tools available to officers when trying to arrest a resistive subject, the smaller the gap between no force and deadly force. This gives officers fewer options, and that can lead to more injuries to officers and offenders and likely higher levels of force that would otherwise not occur,” Meidl said.
The limit of neck restraints and dog bites would leave stun guns, batons, kicks and strikes, less lethal munitions and chemical irritants like pepper spray as options for intermediate force for police officers.
Officers also have the ability to overwhelm a suspect with sheer numbers and can group up if a person is resisting arrest, Beggs noted.
He has also called for an emphasis on deescalation and defensive tactics.
“It’s a legitimate conversation to have, but the community has to decide when we want them to use force that can result in death,” Beggs said. “We determine who our police are and what their practices will be as a community. We’re not a military situation.”