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Finding a Safe Way to Subdue Violent Suspects : LAPD: The 'chokehold' ban merits rational reconsideration.

June 14, 1994|GREG MEYER | Greg Meyer, an LAPD lieutenant and a police-tactics consultant, was an expert witness in the punitive-damages phase of the King civil trial. Views here are his own.

Now that the latest chapter is closed on the Rodney King tragedy, what has the City of Los Angeles learned? Why did the jury award King $3.8 million from the city treasury for general damages, but not a dime in punitive damages from the officers involved in his beating? The jury appears to have decided that the real roots of the King beating were to be found in the LAPD policy that for nine years allowed officers to beat resisting suspects with metal pipes.

The repulsive procedures caught on the King videotape were in effect sanctioned by the City Council and the Board of Police Commissioners in 1982 when so-called chokeholds were taken out of routine use. The action was in response to a public outcry that blamed the deaths of some suspects in custody on chokeholds. (The technique, properly known as an upper-body control hold, applies pressure to the carotid artery in the neck to render the subject unconscious.)

It was a case of emotional rather than rational policy-making, even though some people warned that baton beatings would be the inevitable result. Said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky: "If we don't have the holds, the next level of force . . . is the baton, and it's more dangerous from the maiming standpoint." Councilman Robert Farrell declared that it would be more " 'cost effective' for the city to settle claims for broken bones of combative suspects who are hit with batons rather than to pay settlements" in chokehold cases.

Chief Daryl Gates told the Police Commission on May 7, 1982, that batons "would result in injury in almost every case, a result which does not occur from employment of upper-body control holds."

Still, five days later, the Police Commission put the chokeholds on a par with "deadly force" (the same as shooting someone). A huge gap in the police use-of-force continuum was created, and it was not adequately filled. Thousands of people were subjected to batons and kicks who otherwise would not have been. On Jan. 4, 1984, Gates informed the City Council that injuries to suspects had risen 661% and injuries to officers had risen 521% in a before-and-after comparison pursuant to the chokehold moratorium.

The chief's request to make policy more humane was ignored. The beatings continued until George Holliday tested his new video camera to record police activity near his apartment on March 3, 1991.

Faced with these types of pronouncements and decisions by elected officials and police commissioners, how could the jury hold the officers personally accountable for the results of such a poor policy process?

Recently, media attention has turned to deaths that occurred after violent suspects were hobbled--"hog tied"--their arms and legs drawn together behind them. The phenomenon known as "positional asphyxia," which was not discovered until the late 1980s, is apparently to blame. Typically, drug and alcohol abuse are contributing factors in many of these deaths.

The National Institute of Justice and the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police have just completed a study that estimates that four out of five in-custody deaths are due to positional asphyxia. If the Los Angeles "chokehold death" cases were reinvestigated, one would probably find that the subjects also had been "hog tied" and that the deaths were consistent with positional asphyxia, not chokeholds, which many agencies continue to use with regularity.

So what are the solutions?

Police officers and jailers will continue to have violent confrontations with persons who choose to resist. And the public will grow tired of making millionaires out of convicted criminals and others who resisted arrest. The public must insist on a re-evaluation of police policy in a more rational policy-making process than Los Angeles experienced in the early 1980s. Law-enforcement leaders must adopt a more humane use of force on a scale governed by the severity of injuries that result from any given tactic.

The federal government is developing improved non-lethal weapons technologies, but more with an eye on preventing another Waco than putting something effective into the hands of the average cop. If we can put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth, why can't we put a man on the ground and take him safely to jail?

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