Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith would like to eliminate the carotid control hold from the sheriff’s office use-of-force policy, because there is too much room for injury-resulting error.
Local law enforcement agencies say the use of the carotid restraint is not common. However, they train for it and reserve it as a use-of-force technique in the field to compel disobedient, violent subjects to submit to arrest.
The carotid hold recently gained local attention when Gilroy Police reported that officers used the restraint, among other non-lethal techniques, to attempt to arrest an unarmed suspected prowler, Steven Juarez on Feb. 25. Juarez died after a struggle with officers in the Old Gilroy neighborhood. Police said at least one officer applied a carotid hold and used a Taser and other use-of-force techniques on Juarez while he tried to resist.
An investigation into Juarez’ death is ongoing, and authorities have not yet said what caused his death.
The written use-of-force policies for the Gilroy Police Department, Morgan Hill Police Department and Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office each contain a section on the officers’ use of the carotid control hold. The restraint—popular among many departments nationwide—is typically applied by wrapping an arm around a subject’s neck from behind, and putting “lateral compression” on one of the the arteries on each side of the neck, according to Morgan Hill Police Sgt. Mario Ramirez.
The Hollister Police Department does not use the carotid hold, according to Hollister Police Sgt. Don Pershall. Officers in Hollister are trained to use and carry Tasers in the field.
A correct use of the carotid hold does not cut off or restrict the subject’s breathing, Ramirez said. Rather, it is intended to briefly restrict the blood flow to the brain so the subject is momentarily rendered unconscious, allowing the arresting officer to handcuff them. When applied, the restraining officer’s elbow should form a “V” in front of the subject’s throat with a “pocket” between the elbow and throat, ensuring that no pressure is placed on the trachea or back of the head, Ramirez explained.
“It is not a chokehold,” Ramirez said. “At no point are we restricting the airway of an individual.” He added that when applied correctly, “Most are rendered unconscious within five to 15 seconds of the application. Most regain consciousness within 20 to 30 seconds.”
The written policies for both Morgan Hill and Gilroy police spell out precisely under what conditions an officer can apply a carotid hold: when the subject is “violent or physically resisting,” or the person “has demonstrated an intention to be violent and reasonably appears to have the potential to harm officers, him/herself or others.”
The policies require that officers can only use the carotid hold if they have successfully completed their respective department’s approved training in its use, “due to the potential for injury.” Gilroy and Morgan Hill police departments’ use of force policies also note that after a carotid hold has been applied to a suspect, that person “shall be promptly examined by paramedics or other qualified medical personnel.”
In Morgan Hill, Ramirez said officers rarely use the carotid hold, which can only be used in tight “body-to-body” contact when an officer is “in an active fight and other forms of force may not have been effective.” In fact, he said he can’t remember the last time a local officer used a carotid hold in the field.
“But it is a technique we train for, because it is effective when other methods aren’t working,” Ramirez said. He added it’s also an option to avoid using “impact weapons,” also an approved use of force method for local departments, which are more likely to injure the suspect.
Gilroy policy unchanged
Gilroy Police Sgt. Jason Smith said trained officers are still permitted to use the carotid hold in Gilroy following the Feb. 25 death of Juarez. The department has not made any changes to its use-of-force policy since Feb. 25, but Smith said, “The Gilroy Police Department constantly evaluates our policies to make sure they are lawful, relevant, and they meet the needs of the department and the community.”
Officers in Gilroy are trained every two years in the application of the carotid hold, Smith said. This training is conducted by California Peace Officer Standards and Training certified instructors. The most recent training for Gilroy officers was a four-hour session in the fall of 2017.
Gilroy Police Department’s “Control Devices and Techniques” policy lists other non-lethal use of force techniques that officers are trained and permitted to use. These include batons, tear gas (for crowd dispersal), Oleoresin Capsicum or pepper spray/projectiles and “kinetic energy projectile” launchers.
The policy addresses the proper escalation of force, noting that an officer should use verbal warnings before resorting to physical force on a subject refusing to comply. “When using control devices, officers should carefully consider potential impact areas in order to minimize injuries and unintentional targets,” the control devices policy states.
Gilroy Police also have a “Conducted Energy Device” policy, which lists the procedures and proper use of Tasers.
In Gilroy, officers in the field generally use the carotid hold less often than Tasers, Smith said. Sometimes, even just displaying a Taser is enough to compel a suspect to comply, he said.
Smith added that there might be some circumstances when an officer has to use force that is not spelled out in the written policies.
“If you’re in a fight for your life, there might be a metal stick next to you,” Smith said, without referring to a specific incident. “There are times, in a fight for your life, when you use what you can.”
Ramirez said a similar list of control devices, including Tasers and even a flashlight as an impact weapon, is available for Morgan Hill officers. He added that officers may use “personal body weapons”—a technical term for fists, feet and knees—in “close combat altercation.”
Officers also carry firearms, which are used only as a last resort because they are lethal.
Sheriff has concerns
Sheriff Laurie Smith said while the sheriff’s office includes the carotid hold in its use of force policy, she would like to see it removed from approved use in the field because sometimes “people don’t do it right.”
The carotid hold is not approved for use by officers in county jails, which are under the sheriff’s jurisdiction.
Sheriff’s deputies do not carry Tasers in the field or in the jails, but Smith thinks they should be permitted in both environments.
“I think it’s a good intermediate step,” Smith said. “I believe Tasers would decrease deadly force. We’ve had deputies shoot people who were attacking them with a knife, where I think they would have had time to get their Taser out, and that may have stopped the deadly force.”