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L.A. Police Considering Reviving the Chokehold : Law enforcement: Advocates say its use is safer than the baton. Opponents say it can kill, and has.

September 02, 1991|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Police Department is considering reviving a form of the chokehold--effectively banned nine years ago--as a safer tool than the baton in subduing combative suspects in non-life-threatening situations.

Advocates of the chokehold say it can render a subject unconscious but otherwise unharmed within a few seconds, but its detractors say it can kill--and has.

Reconsideration of the controversial hold is an outgrowth of the Christopher Commission report that assessed police practices in the wake of the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King by police officers wielding batons.

The department now is re-evaluating the options an officer has when deadly force is not justified but when voice commands, firm grips or wristlocks have failed to stop a combative suspect.

Police Chief Daryl F. Gates recently appointed a committee composed of 18 officers to consider all options for so-called middle-range uses of force, including the chokehold, as well as stun guns and a chemical spray based on cayenne pepper.

Approval for use of any of these tools would have to come from Gates, who long has said he believes the chokehold is less dangerous than the baton but has been unwilling to endorse it because he remembers when its use became "a symbol of police oppression." Reintroduction of the chokehold also would need the approval of the reconstituted Police Commission, a civilian panel that effectively banned the tactic in 1982 as too dangerous.

Any attempt to reintroduce the chokehold would likely provoke the wrath of those who fought successfully to eliminate it then.

"The thought of the chokehold as it was applied by the Los Angeles Police Department conjures up some very bad memories, and it resulted in very tragic results, and the principal victims were African-Americans and minorities," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. "The chokehold was lethal. . . . The chokehold itself should remain dead and buried."

But Gates' committee is believed to support reintroduction of the chokehold.

A recent department survey showed that 92% of officers believe they should have the option of applying a chokehold to combative suspects as an alternative to using their batons, said Cmdr. Michael J. Bostic, the committee chairman.

"I think it would be safe to say that (the members) represent the view of the rest of the department," said Bostic.

But he said it would be premature to predict what the committee will recommend to Gates. "We need to . . . evaluate the medical, physiological and civil consequences and determine from that what the recommendations are," he said.

"We may not (recommend a return to the chokehold)," he added, "if physiologically and medically we have the same problems as before."

Opposition to the chokehold was keenest in minority communities.

Part of the reason for the ban was concern that the hold was used indiscriminately and may have killed as many as 17 people in seven years, although causes of death in most cases were in dispute.

Another reason was that use of the hold was a public relations disaster. Officers used to joke about suspects they subdued with the hold, saying, "You choke them out until they do the chicken," officers recalled. This was a reference to the involuntary flapping of a subject's arms and legs as he was being choked.

Some LAPD tactical experts now say they see another public relations disaster--the videotape depicting officers striking King 56 times with batons--as an opportunity to convince the public that subduing someone with a chokehold is actually safer and more humane.

Lt. Fred Nixon, a department spokesman, said he was personally unaware of any deaths from batons, but noted that any time a baton is used, some injury results, even if it is only a bruise. King's doctors said he sustained numerous broken bones.

The city has said in court papers that "the baton can break bones, sever blood vessels, rupture internal organs and cause heart attacks."

The chokehold controversy a decade ago peaked with a lawsuit filed by a 24-year black motorist who was stopped by Los Angeles police at 2 a.m. because one of his taillights was out. A federal judge, Robert Takasugi, ruled that the officers used a chokehold on the motorist "without provocation," rendering him unconscious.

According to the motorist's lawsuit, as the chokehold was being applied, he "feared for his life, gasped for air, choked, spit up blood, urinated and defecated on himself and almost died. He was thereupon issued a traffic citation and released."

The motorist's case--seeking to bar police from using chokeholds--went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, by a 5-4 vote, declined to intervene in what it said was a local affair.

But during the litigation, Gates banned one of the chokeholds then in use--the bar-arm--in which a right-handed officer standing behind a subject would place his right forearm over the subject's Adam's apple and the officer's left hand would grasp his own right wrist and pull it back.

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