California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday ordered the state’s police training program to stop teaching officers how to use a neck hold that blocks the flow of blood to the brain and endorsed legislation that would ban the practice statewide.
It marked his first action on police use of force following more than a week of protests across the country over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd died on Memorial Day after a police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while he was handcuffed and lying on the ground.
Police experts have condemned the Minneapolis officer for using an unacceptable method. However, many departments still employ the carotid method, also known as the sleeper hold, that critics say is overly dangerous.
It involves applying pressure to the sides of the neck with an arm, which can almost immediately block blood flow in the carotid arteries and render someone unconscious. If the blood flow is restricted too long it can cause serious injury or even death.
Floyd’s death has prompted police departments to review their methods. Friday, city leaders in Minneapolis agreed to ban choke holds by police and require officers to immediately report to their superiors when they see use of any neck restraint.
In California, the San Diego Police Department and San Diego County Sheriff’s Department are among the agencies that announced this week they would stop using the carotid hold.
Newsom said Friday he has ordered the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to stop teaching the hold. The commission provides curriculum for training more than 600 agencies and departments throughout California, according to its website. But the decision on whether to allow officers to use the hold is up to each law enforcement agency.
“We train techniques on strangleholds that put people’s lives at risk,” Newsom said. “That has no place any longer in 21st-century practices and policing.”
Assemblyman Mike Gipson, a Democrat from Carson, has authored a bill in the state Legislature that would make carotid holds illegal. Newsom said he would sign it into law if lawmakers pass it.
San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia said his department still allows the carotid hold as a last option before lethal force. He said officers are taught to apply pressure to the sides, rather than the front, of someone’s neck so it wouldn’t block their breathing.
“If you take some of these control holds away, then you eliminate steps before you get to deadly force,” he said.
Garcia said he understands Newsom is trying to instill greater public trust in police but chafed at the governor’s description of the technique as a stranglehold.
“I’ll guarantee you that you will not find ‘stranglehold’ in any police department’s duty manual,” he said.
Ronald Tyler, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Stanford University, said stopping the training will impact new recruits.
“But I think the real pressure is going to be how quickly can the Legislature actually ban it outright,” he said. “that’s what will lead to a sense among police officers that this increases your liability.”
Most of the protests in California have been peaceful, but some erupted into violence that damaged businesses and injured police officers and protesters alike. Police have used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. That prompted Newsom to say he wants the Legislature to set standards for crowd control and police use of force in protests.
“Protesters have the right to protest peacefully. Protesters have the right to do so without being arrested, gassed, shot at by projectiles,” Newsom said. “We need to standardize those approaches.”
Last year, Newsom signed a law that limits police use of lethal force to defending against an imminent threat of death or serious injury to officers or bystanders. The old standard allowed officers to use lethal force if they had a “reasonable fear,” which made it rare for an officer to be charged or convicted.
That law was prompted by the 2018 fatal police shooting in Sacramento of Stephon Clark, who was black. Newsom spent Wednesday cleaning up graffiti in downtown Sacramento with Clark’s brother.