Law enforcement officers around Kansas haven’t been taught choke holds – or “sleeper holds” – as a compliance tactic for decades, the director of the state training academy said Thursday.
“The risk of injury and death” for the person being arrested was just too high, said Ed Pavey, director of the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson, which trains the overwhelming majority of municipal, county and state law enforcement officers in Kansas.
The center also supervises and monitors the training of the remaining officers at eight authorized and certified academy programs operated by local law enforcement agencies – among them the Wichita Police Department and Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office – and the Kansas Highway Patrol.
“We haven’t taught choke holds for several decades,” Pavey said. “We teach a variety of takedown and restraint methods.”
Those methods focus on pressure points and restricting blood flow in certain areas of the body – not the airways, he said.
Eric Garner died in July in New York after a police officer put him in what has been described as a choke hold as he and other officers took Garner into custody. Garner died of a heart attack after repeatedly telling officers who were holding him down, “I can’t breathe.”
Garner’s death was later ruled a homicide, but a grand jury earlier this week didn’t indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who grabbed Garner and wrapped his arm around his throat. Choke holds have been banned in New York for more than 20 years, but Pantaleo’s tactic was described as a choke hold.
The Wichita-Sedgwick County Law Enforcement Training Center does not teach the choke hold to officers or academy cadets, officers with both the Wichita Police Department and the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office said.
“That’s where Tasers come in as a great tool,” Augusta Police Chief Tyler Brewer said. “It’s really helped us a lot.”
The Taser’s charge can leave the subject immobile long enough for an officer to gain control of the situation and apply handcuffs. If a Taser doesn’t work, however, officers may have no choice but to use physical force to take someone into custody, Brewer said.
“There’s no way to make a hands-on arrest look pretty,” he said. “There just isn’t any way.”
Tactics include getting a person on the ground face down if necessary so officers can handcuff a suspect’s hands behind his back. Officers are taught, if necessary, to press a knee into a person’s shoulder blades when they are face down to gain compliance and control, Brewer said.
“I do know that we do not like to leave anybody on their stomach if they’re handcuffed,” he said. “We try to get them up sitting as soon as we can” after they’re in custody.
That’s because of the risk of “positional asphyxiation,” where people lying face down suffocate because their airways become constricted. That risk is elevated for heavyset people, officials said.
“We talk about that in training,” said Pavey, of the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center. “You always have to be observant. You can’t just leave them lying there.”
Garner weighed an estimated 350 pounds and had asthma and other health conditions, officials have said.
“We have officers that come in all shapes and sizes,” he said.
They may well need to arrest someone much larger than they are, he said.
“They’ve got to use what tools they have,” Pavey said.
Sometimes the best tools are well-chosen words that defuse a situation before it becomes physical, he said.
There’s no simple equation for what an officer should do when taking a combative person into custody, Brewer said.
“It depends on the level of resistance that’s going on,” he said. “At times it feels like it’s a struggle for your life.”