"The Gap": How loss of the neck restraints led to the Rodney King incident

by Greg Meyer

Author’s suggestion: Read my previous article, Rodney King Revisited before reading this one.

On May 12, 1982, the Los Angeles Police Department virtually eliminated use of the neck restraints as a standard option.  These holds had been used with great regularity by LAPD and many others for decades.  They are still used by many law enforcement and corrections agencies. 

Under the old LAPD policy, neck restraints fell between the wrist-/twist-lock level and the karate-kick/baton level of the scale.  Under the "new" policy (now in force for almost 25 years), the holds were considered to be deadly force on a par with firearms.  In street lingo, the policy became, "if you can choke’em, you can smoke’em," an unfortunate phrase that sold some t-shirts, but it clearly points out the absurdity of the policy.

Neck restraint holds had been correlated with the deaths in Los Angeles of several suspects who had significant quantities of dangerous drugs (especially PCP and/or cocaine) in their systems when they had violent encounters with police officers trying to take them into custody.  In those days we didn’t know anything about "excited delirium," but that’s exactly what it was.

Regarding the handful of unfortunate deaths during restraint, the politicians and the media fell into the familiar logic trap.  They failed to appreciate that correlation does not equal causation.  

Loss of the neck restraints created a gap in the escalation/de-escalation of force scale for situations requiring immediate response in close-contact situations.  This led to a significant change in training and tactics for confrontations with suspects.  Officers were no longer supposed to "tie up with" (get close to) resisting suspects without risking greater injury to themselves than under the old policy. 

Rather, officers frequently found themselves in the uncomfortable situation of immediately escalating from the verbal or compliance hold level to the baton or karate kick level, resulting in more injuries to suspects and officers alike.     

In addition, in the mid‑1980s, emergency service workers of all types (doctors, nurses, paramedics, fire fighters, and police officers) began to learn that their work could subject them to exposure to the deadly AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) virus via blood-to-blood contacts with infected persons.  AIDS provided more justification for the "don’t tie up" philosophy.

As tactics changed to create more distance between officers and suspects, the role of nonlethal weapons became more significant.  But at the time, the LAPD had TASERs that only achieved only 7-watt output, and pepper spray was still outlawed in California (out of concern for its potential effects on the ozone layer, don’t get me started).  Officers only had CS or CN teargas sprays, which were notoriously ineffective on people under what we now call "excited delirium."

At the time of the Rodney King incident, there were 600 TASERs for 8,000 officers, On any given shift, some units had TASERs and some didn’t.  All field officers carried CS or CN spray, but they weren’t used very much on "flipped out" suspects.

The Rodney King civil jury learned from expert testimony during the punitive damages phase that the roots of the King beating were to be found in poor policy which encouraged Los Angeles police officers who encountered significantly resisting suspects to hit them with metal pipes as a tactic of first resort.

Most people are surprised to learn that nearly all the procedures caught on the King video tape were deemed proper by use-of-force experts who testified on both sides of the case, in view of policies sanctioned by municipal leaders more than a decade ago.

Nearly 10 years before the Rodney King incident, during the discussion of doing away with the neck restraints, some Los Angeles officials specifically predicted that "baton beatings" would result from taking out of routine use the most-used police tactic, which was the carotid neck restraint.  

The mass media played the story to the hilt. The city leaders wanted the neck-restraint controversy off the front pages and off the six o'clock news. With encouragement from media editorials, the holds were banned from routine use.

But the policy makers and news editors hadn't read their Sherlock Holmes: "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data." "Correlation" won the battle, although little other than political conjecture pointed toward the neck restraints as "causation."

The stage was set for Rodney King and thousands of less famous resisting suspects to be struck with batons and kicked with boots.  For nine years leading up to the King video, that is what happened approximately one thousand times per year by actual count, nearly one-third of all 3,600 annual use-of-force incidents that occurred during 320,000 arrests.

In 1994, after the King civil jury chose not to assess punitive damages against the officers, then-City Councilwoman Rita Walters was widely quoted asking for "accountability" and bemoaning the lack of punitive damages.  She should have had a frank discussion with her predecessors, the city's policy makers of the early 1980s.

Apparently not anticipating a riot, Councilman Robert Farrell declared that it would be more "'cost effective' for the city to settle claims for broken bones of combative suspects who are hit with batons rather than to pay settlements" in neck-restraint cases (Los Angeles Times, October 7, 1981).

Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, stated that "if we don't have the holds, the next level of force . . . is the baton, and it's more dangerous from the maiming standpoint. It poses the specter of billy-club confrontations" (Los Angeles Herald Examiner, August 22, 1981).

Then-Chief of Police Daryl Gates, told the Police Commission on May 7, 1982 that "if used, these [batons] would result in injury in almost every case, a result which does not occur from employment of [neck restraint] holds."

Still, five days later, the Police Commission (civilians appointed by the mayor to make police policy) put the holds on a par with "deadly force." Initially the holds, previously used on several of the eight or nine hundred people arrested by LAPD each day in the 1980s, were only used a few times a month.  These days, they are only used a handful of times per year.

When push came to shove in Los Angeles, the civilian overseers of the police department made billy-club confrontations a tactic of first resort. This unfortunate policy and the training that followed created a fundamental change in routine arrest situations that made the baton a tool of aggression instead of merely self-defense.

Police Commissioner Reva Tooley told the Los Angeles Times, "The baton seems to provide a new, broad spectrum of control techniques that perhaps could enable officers to control aggressively resisting suspects without resorting to the chokehold," and that the burden will now be on the Police Department to prove that other methods of restraint are more dangerous than the use of the chokeholds (May 12 and 13, 1982).

Indeed.  And it was very easy to prove.

On January 4, 1984, Gates provided the City Council with information that injuries to suspects had climbed from an average of 3.1 per week prior to the chokehold moratorium, to 23.6 per week afterward. This represents a 661 percent increase.

Similarly, injuries to police officers increased 521 percent as post-chokehold confrontations became more violent. The Chief's request to modify the unreasonable policy was ignored. Thus, a huge gap in the police use-of-force continuum was created, and it was not adequately filled. 

In the mid-1980’s, crack cocaine became even more epidemic than PCP, adding to the challenges of the officer trying to do the job under a poor policy that was literally many times more dangerous than the prior policy.

To this day there has been no validation that media-labeled "chokehold deaths" were chokehold related.  In fact there are numerous medical authorities who assert that carotid-type restraint holds do not contribute to deaths of suspects. 

Many people to this day write off the Rodney King incident as an "aberration," instead of recognizing it as the inevitable consequence of lousy decision-making at high levels.

Police officers will continue to have violent confrontations. The public must grow tired of making millionaires out of convicted criminals and others who choose to resist arrest. Many confrontations will not make for pleasant dinner-time viewing regardless of which tactics are used. The public, the courts and the media must insist on a more constitutional, more rational use-of-force policy-making process than Los Angeles experienced in the early 1980s.

Law enforcement leaders throughout America must adopt humane alternatives. "Policy" includes more than what is written in some thick book. Policy includes choices of tactics, equipment, application and training. Choices can be based on whim or fancy, or they can be based on objective research and findings. Policies should be driven by the numbers and severity of injuries which are known to result from any given tactic.

California finally got over its anti-pepper-spray policy in the mid-1990’s.  OC has proved useful in many circumstances, but is still notoriously ineffective on people flipped out on drugs.

Modern TASERs generally work well in these situations if officers follow their training and use the dart-mode (not drive-stun) and stand back far enough to deliver sufficient dart spread to the target.  The LAPD is in the process of acquiring a TASER X-26 for every officer’s belt, as many agencies have done with great success in reducing deaths and injuries in violent altercations.

But the best equipment is not very useful if it is not accompanied by the best policy, training, and tactics.  And these should be driven by expert professionals, not politicians and the media.

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