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California Legislative Leaders Back State 'Sleeper Hold' Ban

San Diego police officers stand guard on Broadway near State Street in front of City Hall amid protests, May 31, 2020.
KPBS Staff
San Diego police officers stand guard on Broadway near State Street in front of City Hall amid protests, May 31, 2020.

California's Assembly speaker and other key lawmakers on Monday backed making it illegal statewide for police to use a type of neck hold that blocks the flow of blood to the brain, a proposal that appears to go beyond any other state.

Major law enforcement groups did not immediately say if they would oppose the move, which comes after a different restraint used by Minneapolis police was blamed for the death of George Floyd, triggering ongoing nationwide protests.

However, the Los Angeles Police Department announced an immediate moratorium on the training and use of the hold until the civilian Board of Police Commissioners can review the issue. Police departments in suburban Pasadena and El Monte and in Santa Ana in Orange County also have suspended use of the technique.


Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon endorsed legislation that fellow Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gipson said he will amend to make it illegal to use chokeholds and a carotid artery restraint tactic to forcibly detain a suspect.

“We ... have to change a culture of excessive force that seems to exist among some members of law enforcement,” Rendon said at a news conference. “This bill will end one brutal method that police use for restraining people.”

The method, also known as a sleeper hold, involves applying pressure to the sides of the neck with an arm. It can almost immediately block blood flow in the carotid arteries and render someone unconscious, but can cause serious injury or death if the blood flow is restricted too long.

“These methods and techniques are supposed to save lives, but they don’t — they take lives,” said Gipson.

Colorado and Illinois allow use of the hold only if police deem lethal force to be justified, said Amber Widgery, a criminal justice analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, while Tennessee allows its use if other means of restraint have been ineffective. Washington, D.C., bans a similar trachea hold but permits the carotid hold under circumstances where lethal force is allowed.


Other states use more general legal language, she said, and it's not clear if California's proposal will allow any exceptions because Gipson did not release the actual language of his bill.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday said he would sign Gipson's bill if it is approved by lawmakers, and ordered the state’s police training program to stop teaching officers how to use the neck hold.

Congressional Democrats on Monday also introduced legislation aimed at reforming police practices, including by banning certain policing tactics including chokeholds.

Although the Legislature is controlled by Democrats, Sen. Scott Wiener said law enforcement reforms “are incredibly hard to move forward.” He also mentioned proposed legislation that would restrict when police can use rubber bullets.

The sleeper hold ban was backed Monday by Black, Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, Jewish and LGBTQ legislative caucuses. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said in a statement that "it is now time to have a conversation to ban chokeholds and carotid artery restraints on a statewide level.”

The proposal is also supported by the California Medical Association because the holds “can be misapplied and botched easily,” said incoming President Dr. Lee Snook.

One problem is the holds can fatally aggravate underlying health issues, Snook said, something police can't know about on the spur of the moment.

“It is a difficult procedure to do...but it is effective when applied effectively,” said Brian Marvel, president of the rank-and-file Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents more than 77,000 individuals and 930 associations.

His association is likely to defer to organizations representing police chiefs and sheriffs that determine what methods officers and deputies are allowed to use.

The sheriffs' association has not taken a position in part because it hasn't seen the details, said spokesman Cory Salzillo. The chiefs' association did not take a stance but said “painful examples” of use of force prompted chiefs across the state to in recent years "to develop strict guidelines on certain techniques, including the carotid restraint.”

Officers would still have a variety of tools to control suspects if the hold is banned, Marvel said, ranging from voice commands to night sticks, Tasers, pepper spray and firearms. Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a bill co-author, said 23 California law enforcement agencies have already limited its use, several in the last week.

On Friday, San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia said his department still allows the carotid hold as a last option before lethal force. On Monday he said in a statement that his department already bans chokeholds — which he said are distinct from carotid holds. Chokeholds apply pressure from the front and stop the individual from breathing, while carotid holds are from the side.

Garcia said the department is updating the department's polices including by making it clear that chokeholds can't be applied using pressure with any body part including the knee. Floyd died after prolonged pressure on his neck from an officer's knee.

Marvel urged California lawmakers to make it clear that police still can “do what they need to do to save themselves.” He said lawmakers should consider allowing its continued use in certain circumstances, for instance where police or air marshals have limited options to control a suspect aboard an airplane.

Gipson, a former police officer, was among lawmakers who said they hope other states will follow California's lead in banning the hold.