California Legislative Leaders Back State Ban on Police ‘Sleeper Holds’

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People walk past the words "I Can't Breathe," spray painted on a boarded-up building on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles on May 31, 2020, as a police officer stands by.  (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

California’s Assembly speaker and other key lawmakers on Monday backed legislation to bar police from using a type of neck hold that blocks the flow of blood to the brain, a measure that appears to go beyond what any other state has proposed.

Major law enforcement groups did not immediately say if they would oppose the move, which comes after a different restraint used by Minneapolis police was blamed for the death of George Floyd, triggering ongoing nationwide protests.

However, the Los Angeles Police Department announced an immediate moratorium on the training and use of the hold until the civilian Board of Police Commissioners can review the issue. Police departments in suburban Pasadena and El Monte, and in Santa Ana in Orange County also have suspended use of the technique.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, on Monday endorsed a bill that would make it illegal to use chokeholds and a carotid artery restraint tactic to forcibly detain a suspect.

“We ... have to change a culture of excessive force that seems to exist among some members of law enforcement,” Rendon said at a news conference. “This bill will end one brutal method that police use for restraining people.”

The method, also known as a sleeper hold, involves applying pressure to the sides of the neck with an arm. It can almost immediately block blood flow in the carotid arteries and render someone unconscious, but can also cause serious injury or death if the blood flow is restricted for too long.

“These methods and techniques are supposed to save lives, but they don’t — they take lives,” said Mike Gipson, D-Carson, who is introducing the measure.

Gipson, a former police officer, was among lawmakers who said they hope other states will follow California’s lead in banning the hold.

Colorado and Illinois allow use of the hold only if police deem lethal force to be justified, said Amber Widgery, a criminal justice analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Tennessee allows its use if other means of restraint have been ineffective. Washington, D.C., bans a similar trachea hold but permits the carotid hold under circumstances where lethal force is allowed.

Other states use more general legal language, Widgery said. It’s not clear if California’s proposal will allow any exceptions, as Gipson has yet to release the actual language of his bill.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday said he would sign Gipson’s bill if it is approved by lawmakers, and ordered the state’s police training program to stop teaching officers how to use the neck hold.

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Congressional Democrats on Monday also introduced legislation aimed at reforming police practices, including by banning chokeholds and other controversial policing tactics.

Although the Legislature is controlled by Democrats, Sen. Scott Wiener said law enforcement reforms “are incredibly hard to move forward.” He also mentioned proposed legislation that would restrict when police can use rubber bullets.

The sleeper hold ban was backed Monday by Black, Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, Jewish and LGBTQ legislative caucuses. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said in a statement that “it is now time to have a conversation to ban chokeholds and carotid artery restraints on a statewide level.”

The proposal is also supported by the California Medical Association because the holds “can be misapplied and botched easily,” said incoming President Dr. Lee Snook, who noted that the holds can fatally aggravate underlying health issues, which police are unlikely to know about in the moment.

But police advocacy groups argue that the use of sleeper holds can be an effective policing tactic if used correctly.

“It is a difficult procedure to do ... but it is effective when applied effectively,” said Brian Marvel, president of the rank-and-file Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents more than 77,000 individuals and 930 associations.

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Marvel said his association is likely to defer to organizations representing police chiefs and sheriffs that determine what methods officers and deputies are allowed to use. Officers would still have a variety of tools to control suspects if the hold is banned, he added, ranging from voice commands to night sticks, Tasers, pepper spray and firearms.

Marvel urged California lawmakers to make it clear that police still can “do what they need to do to save themselves.” He said lawmakers should consider allowing the continued use of the technique in certain circumstances, such as when police or air marshals have limited options to control a suspect aboard an airplane.

The California State Sheriffs' Association has not taken a position in part because it hasn’t seen the details, said spokesman Cory Salzillo. The state Police Chiefs Association also has not taken a stance but said “painful examples” of use-of-force prompted chiefs across the state in recent years “to develop strict guidelines on certain techniques, including the carotid restraint.”

Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a bill co-author, said 23 California law enforcement agencies have already limited its use, several in the last week.

On Friday, San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia said his department still allows the carotid hold as a last option before lethal force is used. In a statement on Monday he said his department already bans chokeholds — which he added are distinct from carotid holds. Chokeholds apply pressure from the front and stop the individual from breathing, while carotid holds are from the side.

Garcia said the department is currently updating its use-of-force policies and making it clear that chokeholds can’t be applied using pressure with any body part, including the knee, which led to Floyd's death.