SFPD Hangs Onto The Sleeperhold - June 29, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

SFPD Hangs Onto The Sleeperhold

It's the 21st century and the age of innovation, yet the bag of tricks San Francisco police have to deploy on wrongdoers is fairly old school — and it's shrinking.

SFPD's use-of-force policies have been under scrutiny since the Dec. 2 shooting death of Mario Woods, with reform promised by Mayor Ed Lee and former police Chief Greg Suhr (a promise repeated by acting Chief Toney Chaplin, who took over following Suhr's resignation in late May after the third fatal police shooting in six months).

Last week, the Police Commission finally came up with the first revision in 20 years to the way police interact with the public. Going forward, officers are prohibited from shooting at moving vehicles and will no longer be able to put resisting suspects in the carotid restraint.

A move familiar to fans of mixed-martial arts also known as the sleeper hold, the carotid hold cuts off the supply of oxygen to the brain by compressing the carotid artery, the main blood vessel in the neck. (That's what makes it a “stranglehold” and not a “chokehold,” which compresses the windpipe.)

The move is rarely used — it was deployed “two dozen” times in 2015, according to Nathan Ballard, a consultant for the Police Officers Association union — but cops say it's a valuable tool.

Police reform advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union hate it, saying a botched carotid hold is what led to the 2014 death of Eric Garner, the New York City man whose final words — “I can't breathe” — helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I know its purpose. You're trying to black a person out,” says civil rights attorney John Burris, whose lawsuit against the city in connection with Woods' death is still pending. “That's very much what happened to Eric Garner. That's what they were trying to do — they were trying to do a carotid hold.”

Both SFPD and NYPD forbid chokeholds like the one that helped kill Garner. The problem is, if you're dealing with a large man who is resisting, instead of putting his neck in the V formed by your forearm and upper arm when you bend at the elbow, the forearm could end up across the front of the throat, as it did with Garner, crushing the trachea.

It does not appear that this has happened recently in San Francisco, and Burris says he can't recall a case in which the carotid hold was used.

Shooting at a vehicle, however, is exactly how unarmed auto theft suspect Jessica Williams died on May 19, after a sergeant fired a single shot at her vehicle as she was fleeing from police.

But both the carotid hold and the entire use-of-force policy is, for the moment, out of the Police Commission's hands. As with the changes to working conditions for any group of city employees, the POA and the Department of Human Resources are negotiating over the use-of-force policies, into which the carotid hold or shooting at cars — two main points of contention, part of the “20 percent” cops and commission still disagree on — could feasibly be reinserted.

If that happens, and if the Police Commission doesn't like the final result, the entire use-of-force policy could end up in the hands of an arbitrator charged with issuing a final ruling. “That would be a shame to have our policy determined that way,” says Suzy Loftus, president of the Police Commission. It could also mean the carotid hold could end up staying after all — despite a unanimous commission vote to take it out.