Two months after the death of Steven Juarez while in the custody of Gilroy police, the investigation of the exact cause of his death continues. While the police and the district attorney’s office are investigating whether police were responsible, they have said little about the “non-lethal” methods used by police to restrain the 42-year-old Gilroyan.
What police did say, two days after the Feb. 25 death, was that multiple officers used a combination of three things—a Taser stun-gun, “physical force,” and a neck hold known as a carotid restraint—to bring Juarez under control following a chase through the Old Gilroy neighborhood.
At some point during the struggle, the officers said Juarez “was in medical distress” and they called for an ambulance. He was pronounced dead shortly after arrival at San Jose Regional Medical Center. A coroner’s report is underway, to determine the cause of death. Footage from body cameras in use by police officers during the arrest has not been released.
Gilroy police said they have not reviewed either the department’s use of Tasers or the carotid restraint technique—or the training procedures.
Tasers are hand-held weapons that deliver a jolt of 1,500 volts of electricity to a suspect through a pair of wires propelled by compressed air as far as 35 feet away. The jolt immobilizes its target, in most cases causing a suspect to fall to the ground. Taser stands for “Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle.” It is named after a series of children’s science fiction novels written in the early 20th century featuring the young genius inventor Tom Swift.
Taser International says more than 16,200 law enforcement agencies in more than 40 countries use its devices. They are not without controversy, especially with regard to the numbers of jolts a person can receive safely. Some cities are considering restrictions on the use of Tasers. Some cities, including San Francisco and Berkeley, do not use Tasers. In Santa Clara County, Sheriff Laurie Smith wants to expand their use, even to allow use of Tasers in the County Jail.
A carotid restraint hold—where the sides of one’s neck are squeezed to cut off blood flow to the brain—is used by half the nation’s big-city police departments, despite several deaths attributed to its improper application. It is distinct from a choke hold, now prohibited, which blocks the windpipe. To perform a carotid restraint, an officer has to be standing behind the suspect, bending one arm around a subject’s neck, applying pressure on either side of the windpipe—but not on the windpipe itself—to slow or stop the flow of blood to the brain via the carotid arteries.
The growing concern is that a small difference in technique can mean life or death.
Sheriff Smith told us last week that she wants to eliminate the carotid hold from deputies’ available compliance techniques because of the dangers involved in its improper use. The Hollister Police Department does not use the carotid restraint, and the Chicago and Philadelphia police departments ban the use of the carotid restraint hold.
Police officers need tools to protect themselves when confronted by dangerous suspects. They also deserve proper policies, training and support in the use of these tools. If techniques were improperly applied and led to the tragic death of Steven Juarez, the department supervisors as well as individual officers must bear some responsibility.
Gilroy should follow the lead of some of their regional and national fellow officers and immediately suspend use of the dangerous carotid restraint holds. They also should review their Taser policies and training to ensure their safe use.