KERN COUNTY, Calif. (KGET) — In the weeks since the death of George Floyd, law enforcement agencies across the nation have been reviewing use of force policies and implementing changes.
Kern County is no exception. The Kern County Sheriff’s Office and Bakersfield Police Department announced last week that they have suspended the use of carotid control holds pending a review of the restraint.
The announcements came after Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would support a ban of the carotid hold and would remove it from law enforcement training throughout the state.
On Monday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced a number of proposed police reforms, including urging agencies statewide “to have a policy prohibiting the use of chokeholds, strangleholds, carotid restraints or other restraints, or body positioning that is designed to, or which may foreseeably result in, the cutting off of blood or oxygen to the person.”
The carotid restraint — sometimes referred to as a “sleeper hold” — involves bending an arm around a person’s neck, applying pressure to the side and cutting off blood flow through the carotid arteries, causing the person to briefly lose consciousness. It’s typically allowed by law enforcement only in extreme circumstances and as a last resort.
17 News asked some other law enforcement agencies in the county whether they also are suspending the hold, and what impact such a suspension could have.
In responses from three agencies, it appears the carotid hold is something that does not often come into play.
Shafter police Capt. Jeff Bell said the department suspended the use of the hold upon the governor’s announcement. He said the move is covered in advanced officer training, but he’s unaware of any time where it has been used by Shafter police.
“I’ve been here 21 years and I’ve done a lot of use of force reviews, and I can’t come up with one time that I’m aware of where we’ve done the carotid hold on anybody,” he said.
Bell said he was shocked to discover the Minneapolis Police Department had the wording “chokeholds” in a section of their policy manual, and that it allowed an officer to use either an arm or a leg to perform the hold.
Like many officers nationwide, he expressed horror at the killing of Floyd, who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“I don’t know anybody that didn’t look at this and go, ‘What the hell?'” Bell said.
Arvin police Lt. Olan Armstrong said the carotid hold remains in the department’s policy manual but its use was unofficially stopped roughly 15 years ago. He can’t recall a circumstance where the hold was used by Arvin officers.
“We still have it in our paperwork, but officers are told not to use it,” he said.
The policy manual is now being reviewed due to the governor’s announcement, Armstrong said.
The police chiefs of California State University’s 23 police departments released a statement last week banning the use of carotid control holds by their officers and ending training that teaches the hold.
“We have seen the tragic impact of racism and bigotry, and many in our departments have experienced it personally,” the chiefs said in a news release. “We are unitedly determined to take action.”
Cal State Bakersfield police Chief Marty Williamson said no one his department, including some who have been there for two decades, can recall an instance of the carotid hold being used. And Williamson — who has a total of 41 years in law enforcement — said the only time he’s ever used it was in training.
He said the carotid hold is a tool, and there’s a school of thinking that the more tools an officer is left with, the better the position they’re in to resolve a situation with a minimal level of force. But whatever the final outcome, if the hold is banned forever, it’s something they will deal with and move on, he said.
“The only think I want is for us to look at the entire picture and not a snapshot in time,” Williamson said.
Bell expressed a similar wish. He said the policies are guidelines for police, but every incident is different and a use of force that is appropriate in one scenario may not suffice for another incident.
There have been comments from some groups about taking batons or OC spray (pepper spray) away from officers, he said. Those items are useful, less-lethal tools for an officer to use if a situation escalates.
Bell said he’s only had to threaten to use OC spray fewer than six times, while he’s only used his baton once or twice during his career. They are options that are in place if the situation requires it, not something that’s often necessary, he said.
“All I keep hearing is ‘take things away, take away OC spray, take away Tasers,'” Bell said. “Now what do I have? My keys? Do I throw my handcuffs at them?”
He said Floyd paid the ultimate price last month, and law enforcement will be dealing with the fallout for a long time to come.