After a 10-year hiatus, King County sheriff’s deputies have resumed training to use a neck restraint considered by the department as a suitable alternative to “less-than-lethal” options like Tasers and batons.
The so-called “lateral vascular neck restraint,” or LVNR, involves applying pressure to the sides of the neck, restricting blood flow to the brain. The restraint can render a suspect unconscious in moments without inflicting permanent injury, according to sheriff’s officials.
“It gives us another option on our use-of-force continuum,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. DB Gates.
But neck restraints, when improperly applied, can have debilitating — even deadly — results, say critics. They cite the recent death of a man being restrained by New York City police — an incident caught on a widely viewed video — as evidence of the volatility of targeting the neck to gain compliance.
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Because of that potential danger, Seattle police and the Washington State Patrol consider any neck restraint a type of lethal force, similar to the use of a firearm. Officers with those agencies aren’t trained in neck restraints, and their use is limited to only when an officer believes his or her life is in danger.
“The only time you’re going to use it is when you know it’s going to cause great bodily harm. When you’re at that threshold, your options have been greatly diminished,” said Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb. “It’s something rarely used.”
Those divergent views are at the heart of the controversy over whether neck restraints — commonly referred to as chokeholds — should be part of a police officer’s tools.
Trainers at the state police academy, as well as an instructor for the King County Sheriff’s Office, believe the LVNR poses no more of a threat of permanent injury than other methods of force considered nonlethal — like a Taser, baton or pepper spray.
LVNR is considered a “blood choke” — although officials at the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission stress it is not a chokehold because the airway is not cut off and arms, not hands, are used. Semantics aside, in blood chokes, both carotid arteries and/or the jugular veins are compressed without compressing the airway.
An “air choke” refers to a neck hold in which the upper airway is compressed, causing pain and a lack of oxygen to the brain.
The reason the Sheriff’s Office stopped training deputies in LVNR about 10 years ago is unclear, although Sue Rahr, who was King County sheriff from 2005 to 2012, said there was no way to “guarantee it was applied properly.”
Rahr, now the executive director of the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission, which oversees the state’s police academy, said that the tactic, also known as the carotid hold, can be dangerous when done incorrectly.
“It’s a very, very good technique, but it has to be taught and practiced regularly. It’s perishable,” Rahr said.
Bernard Melekian, a California-based law-enforcement consultant and former police chief in Pasadena, said that over the past 20-plus years “reliance on [vascular neck restraints] has gone up and down.”
In the 1980s, the Los Angeles Police Department prohibited the use of chokeholds, but it’s now training officers how to perform a vascular restraint hold. According to the New York Daily News, in the wake of the incident in New York City, the LAPD just started training six NYPD officers in the technique.
Melekian, who is the special adviser to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray on police matters, believes the technique is having a resurgence because departments are searching for “meaningful alternatives to deadly force.”
“It is very effective. It, however, is not without risk,” he said. “The training and the policy development should be consistent and very specific.”
Gates, the King County sheriff’s spokeswoman, said the agency brought back the vascular-restraint training program after studying what other local agencies were doing.
So far, 15 sheriff’s deputies have been trained. Another class is to begin training this month.
About 35 police departments across the state have policies regarding the method and do not consider it deadly force, according to the Criminal Justice Training Commission.
“The bottom line is it restricts blood flow to and from the brain, resulting in unconsciousness,” said Robert Bragg, head fitness trainer at the state police academy. If it’s done properly, Bragg said, a suspect will pass out within seconds, giving officers a brief window to clamp on handcuffs.
Demonstrating the LVNR technique in the police academy’s gym late last month, one trainer wrapped his arm in the shape of a “V “around a colleague’s neck. Using his forearm and upper arm, the trainer placed pressure on the sides of the other man’s neck, not the windpipe, and within a few seconds the officer was on the ground saying he was seeing stars.
Trainers at the academy say a vascular hold tends to be more of a deterrent. Often, when an officer wraps his arm around a suspect’s neck and threatens to apply pressure, the person gives up.
“You don’t win this one — you can tap out or go unconscious,” Bragg said. “You wake up feeling like you slept too long; you’re groggy.”
Deputy J. Miller, the force-options coordinator in the King County Sheriff’s Office training division, said the LVNR method is categorized as “intermediate force,” on the same level as a Taser, pepper spray and a baton.
“It’s imperative that it’s not taught as a physical technique, but a system of control. It’s about communicating. We give clear and concise instructions about what we need to do.”
Miller emphasizes that deputies are not rushing up behind people and performing the tactic without clearly announcing what they are doing.
“It’s a benefit to police officers and the public that police officers have another force option, as opposed to impact weapons. We can do this with less injuries,” Miller said.
Training is optional
Vascular-neck-restraint training is optional for the nearly 700 sworn sheriff’s deputies. Gates said deputies not trained in LVNR cannot use the technique.
“It’s not like some training where you go, sit in a class and you’re trained. You have to pass a test and stay current with your training. They have to recertify every year on it,” Gates said.
Bragg said he watched the video of NYPD’s confrontation last month with Eric Garner, who was allegedly hawking untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island. The video shows the heavyset man yelling at officers to leave him alone, followed by a plainclothes officer wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck, yanking him to the ground.
Garner is heard saying he couldn’t breathe. He was soon dead.
A medical examiner determined Friday that Garner was killed by “the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” His death has been ruled a homicide.
“It was a poorly applied chokehold. It was a lousy job of any neck restraint. We don’t train chokeholds,” Bragg said.
The incident and video have generated an outcry from citizens and civil-rights groups.
In June 2013, a Spokane man died after a confrontation with Spokane County sheriff’s deputies in which a Taser and an LVNR hold were used. The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office determined William Berger, 34, died as a result of oxygen deprivation.
The death certificate showed he also had heart problems, according to published reports.
Last month, the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office announced that criminal charges will not be filed against the two deputies involved.
In Las Vegas, three men are suing their city’s police department and the state of Nevada after being put in LVNR holds. Lawyer Derek Connor, who represents the three men, said the officers used excessive force.
Connor said his clients were visiting the Las Vegas Strip on New Year’s Eve 2013 and had intervened in a fight. After the fight broke up, police ran up and, without identifying themselves, put the men in a LVNR hold, he said.
“If the vascular neck restraint is applied right there shouldn’t be a choking sensation,” Connor said by phone Tuesday. “My clients said their airways were cut off and they could not breathe at all.”
While Connor said the lateral-vascular neck restraint should remain a tool for law enforcement, he believes it’s being “misused” by police nationwide.
“They claim it doesn’t choke you. But it’s absurd; it clearly does,” he said. “When did the default for an officer become running up and putting you in a chokehold or using a Taser on you?”