King Co. Sheriff's deputies now allowed to use 'chokeholds'

SEATTLE -- The King County Sheriff's Department has decided to allow deputies to learn how to use a sometimes controversial restraining technique to subdue uncooperative suspects.

People commonly refer to the move as a chokehold, which officers object to because the name implies restricting a suspect's airway. Law enforcement agencies refer to it as a carotid neck-restraint, or lateral vascular neck restraint (LVNR).

The technique entails an officer using his or her forearms around a suspect's neck and applying pressure to the carotid arteries that run along the side.

Restricting the flow of blood to the brain usually induces unconsciousness within seconds, giving officers a moment to handcuff a subject. Officers say suspects regain consciousness within a moment or so without any serious injury.

A properly applied neck-restraint does not obstruct the airway or cause damage to the windpipe.

"We're always looking for new tools to use, especially less than lethal tools, to make our jobs easier, to make it safer for people," said Deputy B.J. Myers. "It's considered a safe and effective technique."

The Sheriff's office is actually resuming neck-restraint training after discarding it 10 years ago. Myers says it's a technique that cycles in and out of favor at various law-enforcement agencies.

King County is making it optional for deputies, and only those who voluntarily undergo training are allowed to employ it in the field.

So far, 28 of nearly 700 sworn officers have qualified, though the training is just now being offered.

Myers is one of the first to complete 8-hour course.

"It gives me another non-lethal tool if I'm in a position where a suspect is combative," he said. "It can help make sure I go home in one piece, and it helps prevent the suspect from getting hurt."

Myers says other less-than-lethal options like Tasers and batons can inflict serious injuries. Neck-restraints are also an effective control technique officers can use to convince a suspect to stop resisting.

"You can apply pressure without taking it all the way to unconsciousness," said Myers. "Suspects will often stop resisting when you've got them in that position."

He said officers learn through repetition how to control the pressure, how to recognize the suspect's reaction, as well as knowing when the technique is being applied wrongly.

But critics say the move can be lethal when applied incorrectly and have serious reservations about whether officers should be allowed to use neck-restraints.

"It can be misapplied in a way that has tragic results without the officer intending to," said ACLU of Washington deputy director Jennifer Shaw. "Those arteries are on either side of your windpipe and when you miss and you start to crush that, that's when people stop breathing."

Shaw says video of New York City police officers subduing a man last month is a tragic example of what can go wrong.

The video shows officers trying to arrest a man accused of illegally selling cigarettes. It shows a plainclothes officer wrapping his arm around the suspect's neck and yanking him to the ground.

The heavy-set man soon died after saying he couldn't breathe. Investigators are examining whether misuse of force caused the suspect's death.

"It can be very difficult for an officer to apply a chokehold properly while in the middle of an adrenaline-fueled fight with a suspect," Shaw said. "We just think chokeholds are a risky technique that can lead to tragic outcomes."