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Caliornia and the West

Police Use of Martial Arts Weapon Debated

San Diego: Critics say nunchakus are too difficult for most officers to handle. Chief orders review but lets policy stand.

May 08, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The Police Department here has long prided itself on its community-friendly approach to policing the state's second-largest city.

Every police chief for three decades has preached much the same message:

Macho types need not apply. This community will not accept the confrontational and often intimidating brand of policing practiced in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere.

A former deputy police chief said he never wanted San Diegans to fear their police. One mayor refused to let San Diego cops shift from tan to blue uniforms because blue smacks of the LAPD.

But there is one area where San Diego has been unapologetic for using a tougher approach than Los Angeles or New York or other urban departments: the use of nunchakus.

San Diego is the only big-city police department in the United States that uses the martial-arts weapon designed to inflict excruciating pain on unarmed suspects, including political demonstrators engaging in civil disobedience.

Fashioned after a weapon created by peasant farmers in Okinawa, modern nunchakus consist of two 12-inch-long tubes of molded hard plastic connected by a three-inch cord. San Diego officers are issued both nunchakus, which weigh 14 ounces, and a baton with a side handle.

The most common use of nunchakus is to coerce protesters and others to submit to arrest. The officer places the nunchakus around the arm or wrist of a suspect and twists.

A decade ago, Los Angeles tried nunchakus as a way to inflict "pain compliance" on anti-abortion protesters they sought to move away from clinic doors. The practice was abandoned, however, amid controversy and an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit.

But San Diego police, backed by City Hall, have stubbornly stuck with nunchakus despite a lawsuit by anti-abortion protesters and the fatal shooting of an assault suspect in 1990 who had disarmed an officer of his nunchakus.

Now nunchakus are again the focus of controversy, this time involving the fatal shooting last July of former NFL player Demetrius Dubose.

Two officers shot Dubose after he had managed to get their nunchakus and swing the weapons above his head in a menacing manner. Witnesses disagree on whether he was advancing toward the officers or standing still.

Last week the city's Citizens Review Board of Policing Practices, while finding the shooting justified under city policy, blamed the officers' use of the nunchakus for allowing a routine field interrogation to escalate into a deadly confrontation outside a grocery store in Mission Beach.

Board Chairman Fred Heske said the panel was surprised at how little training San Diego officers receive in using the nunchakus, which are notoriously difficult to master.

"We thought that since both sets of nunchakus were taken away, it seemed that both officers were probably not very well-versed in their use," said Heske, an administrator with the San Diego Community College system. "We thought, OK, maybe one officer could have his taken away, but both?"

The report called for the Police Department to improve training in the use of nunchakus and possibly restrict their use to situations such as crowd control. San Diego officers are trained in nunchakus while in the academy but there are no mandatory refresher courses.

In response to the report, Police Chief David Bejarano said he has ordered a review of nunchaku training. But he said he continues to support use of the weapon and believes that his two officers were correct in employing it during the scuffle with Dubose.

Despite the Dubose shooting, Bejarano insists that nunchakus have helped officers avoid using deadly force in other cases in which dangerous suspects refused to submit.

"I have an obligation to our community and our officers to give the officers the tools they need to resolve as many incidents as possible without the use of deadly force," Bejarano said Friday.

Of about 17,000 police departments in the United States, about 200 small and medium-size departments continue to use nunchakus, as developed and patented two decades ago by a Colorado police officer. San Diego adopted nunchakus as standard equipment in 1988.

Many officers praise the nunchakus as a good substitute for the old-fashioned nightstick as an "impact weapon" or the pain-compliance "come-along" wrist holds. Yet officials in many other departments say they are just too difficult to use.

"It's a weapon that to use effectively takes quite a bit of training," said Lt. Kurt Fettu of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which does not use nunchakus.

Even Jerry Sanders, former San Diego police chief, said that when he was a captain and still doing some patrol work he decided not to use the nunchakus because "they were much more complicated than I wanted to deal with."

News pictures in 1989 of pain-wracked protesters being led away by Los Angeles police prompted an ACLU lawsuit. Rather than litigate, Los Angeles in 1991 agreed to stop using nunchakus.

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