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COLUMN ONE : Politics, Pain and the Police : Anti-abortion protesters decry holds applied by officers during arrests. Their stand has turned liberal and conservative alliances topsy-turvy.

January 08, 1990|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A controversial videotape being shown among activists nationwide shows Los Angeles police officers intentionally hurting the nonviolent demonstrators they are arresting.

They press fingers under their noses. They dig their knuckles into protesters' necks, and torque martial arts weapons around their wrists. At one point, two officers twist a woman's arm till she rises from the ground, her face wrenched in agony. In another scene, a young man winces as officers lead him along. His arm, contorted behind his back, finally snaps.

The law enforcement name for these techniques is "pain-compliance." Police departments nationwide say it's a tried and true way to make uncooperative protesters cooperate. But opponents call the term a euphemism for torture.

Demonstrators have alleged police brutality at least since Freedom Riders launched their sit-down strikes in Alabama almost 30 years ago. This time, however, the outcry--including the videotapes of police in action--comes from anti-abortion protesters with Operation Rescue, whose members tend to see themselves as law-and-order conservatives.

As a result, traditional political alliances have been turned topsy-turvy. Suddenly, some pro-choice liberals are as supportive of the police as conservative hawks were during 1960s demonstrations, while some anti-abortion Republicans are voicing the sort of "police state" rhetoric once associated with anti-war radicals.

In introducing a measure to limit the police use of force in arresting nonviolent protesters, William Armstrong, Colorado's conservative Republican senator, decried pain-compliance as "something we expect to hear about in Nicaragua or Nazi Germany--but not in the United States of America."

Other conservative lawmakers have echoed his concerns, and on Nov. 15, with little media attention, President Bush signed legislation withholding certain federal grants from cities whose police use excessive force.

Meanwhile, police officers, many of whom are sympathetic to the anti-abortion cause, claim that religious zeal--and perhaps the use of muscle relaxants--has given Operation Rescue anti-abortion protesters an unusually high tolerance to pain--or even a martyr's appetite for it.

Caught off guard by an ambush from their conservative allies, police are howling that the new law--which could deprive Los Angeles alone of more than $50 million a year in federal aid--will handcuff them.

"I think it's utter stupidity," Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates said. "Utter, complete stupidity."

In reaction to the uproar, the LAPD is quickly phasing out the term pain-compliance , but not the techniques, which have been used "in civil rights demonstrations, student demonstrations, Vietnam demonstrations . . . all through the '60s, all through the '70s," Gates said. He smiled. "You didn't hear any Republicans complain then, did you?"

While Gates acknowledged that this issue stirs up memories of the controversy about "chokeholds"--a restraint the LAPD now uses only in life-threatening situations as a result of fierce public pressure--he argues that "come-along" techniques, properly used, are the safest, most effective way to arrest nonviolent demonstrators.

His officers, he added, are as well-trained in the use of these holds as any in the country.

On a recent morning, for example, the Los Angeles Police Academy gym echoed with the unmistakable sounds of force being exerted, as pairs of recruits, dressed in dark blue sweats, kicked, jabbed, swung their night sticks, or grappled one another into chokeholds or pain-compliance holds.

Reacting to one phase of the exam, a woman cadet knocked back an assailant's hand, backed up quickly and leveled her weapon at the man's chest, shouting: "Put your hands up, lock your elbows, spread your fingers."

Had this been a real incident, she would have had to decide in a flash of synapses whether "reasonable force" included opening fire with her handgun.

Deadly force is one extreme among the techniques officers must choose from in confronting suspected lawbreakers, explained Sgt. Fred Nichols, the academy's expert on the use of force. The least forceful tactic is a simple request--"Would you do this?" Pain-compliance techniques fit into the scale above talk but below the use of a Taser gun, tear gas, and the police baton.

Among the most simple "come-along" compliance techniques are twist- and wrist-locks, in which a subject's arm or wrists are manipulated so that soft tissue and nerves press against bone, Nichols said. Another trick of the trade: the "mastoid lift," in which officers press the nerves along each side of the neck. Demonstrated on recruits who had seated themselves like protesters on the Academy's playing field, each of these techniques worked promptly.

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