YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Police Restrict Use of Carotid Restraint Hold : Law enforcement: Department rewrites its policy for applying the neck restraint in response to a study of deaths of suspects.


After seven suspects had died in its custody since 1989, the San Diego Police Department announced Monday that it has adopted a broad new policy that severely restricts the use of neck restraints.

The changes were part of a 4-month study by law enforcement and medical professionals that was prompted by the January death of 16-year-old John Hampton, whom officers tried to subdue by using a "carotid restraint" hold, which deprives the brain of oxygen.

Although the carotid hold will not be abandoned altogether, its use is restricted to occasions in which a violent suspect must be rendered unconscious. Even then, it cannot be applied for longer than 30 seconds and should be used with at least two officers present.

In defending his decision not to ban the restraint outright, Police Chief Bob Burgreen said he would not limit his officers from choosing when to use the restraint.

"Let's be real," Burgreen said. "If you take that tool away, what does an officer have left? Would you rather be rendered unconscious in handcuffs or have an officer come at you with a (baton) and beat you until your bones break? In a real world situation, those are the options and those are the only options."

Of the seven cases that the 26-member Custody Death Task Force examined, two of the suspects died after officers used the carotid hold.

Besides Hampton, police used the restraint on Edgar Paris, a 31-year-old man with a history of mental illness who had barricaded himself in a hotel room last year and had to be wrestled to the ground.

But the death of Hampton, who was visiting his best friend before he began breaking windows in an apparent drug-induced frenzy, caused the department to look more closely at its restraint policies.

Wearing only underwear and talking incoherently, Hampton was subdued with the carotid restraint by two officers. Four other officers arrived and piled on top, handcuffing him and wrapping cord cuffs around his legs. Hampton's breathing was irregular and he was pronounced dead shortly after he arrived at a La Jolla hospital.

One of the officers said he kept the carotid restraint on Hampton for four to five minutes. And a second officer was not monitoring the hold at all times, as the new rules demand.

"Had all of that been in place and we were able to carry that out, the circumstances may have ended quite differently," Burgreen said during a Monday morning news conference.

Hampton's father, Dennis, a senior chief hospital corpsman at the Miramar Naval Air Station, said the department should have recognized the problems with the restraints earlier.

"I haven't seen the study but it's good they finally recognized the need to evaluate their methods," Hampton said. "Unfortunately, they didn't do it earlier. There might have been a lot more people alive today."

Hampton has a wrongful death lawsuit pending against San Diego police.

Following the death of Tony Steele, 31, in custody last October, police revised their "hogtie" policy, in which cord cuffs and handcuffs are tied together behind a suspect.

Now, rather than binding feet and hands together tightly behind a suspect and forming a "bow" in the chest or abdominal cavity, another strap is placed between the feet and hands which gives the suspect room to sit down or be placed on his side. Either way, the suspect has a better chance to breathe, officials said.

In February, police stopped transporting prisoners on their stomachs in the back of police cars. Burgreen announced Monday that the department is equipping 26 patrol cars with special seats to carry handcuffed prisoners. The seats cost $10,000.

The new techniques reduce the possibility of "positional asphyxia," which medical examiners said caused Steele's death because he could not breath while hogtied. Steele had been running down a downtown street, yelling, "They're after me!" when police captured him.

To avoid positional asphyxia, Burgreen has ordered that officers who use their weight to subdue a suspect should get off as quickly as possible and roll the suspect onto his side.

Four other suspects in the past three years died with drugs in their system and their deaths were attributed to "excited delirium," according to the study.

The state of excited delirium describes anyone on drugs who exhibits bizarre and often violent behavior while being restrained by police. Medical experts said those suspects run a great risk of dying suddenly in police custody.

Medical experts said excited delirium contributed to the deaths of Leroy Cleghorn, 28; Leonard Navarra, 40; Perry Smith, 41, and Kurush Kamyaran, 31.

Those with such symptoms "are at risk of dying as a result of the drug they have in their body," said Dr. Brian Blackbourne, the county's chief medical examiner and member of the task force. "Frequently, the police are called because of their activity and when they are encountered by police, they are an increased risk. These people are at risk of dying even without the restraint."

Los Angeles Times Articles