For many years, the Los Angeles Police Department approved of its officers
using "upper body control holds" -- i.e. arms around the neck -- to "control"
suspects. Many people died from these chokeholds. On the average, two victims
per year died, and a disproportionate number of them were black males.
Sixteen deaths occurred from 1975 to 1982; twelve were black males. Below
you can review how they occurred.
DISCLAIMER: The chokehold victims who died may or may not have
been engaged in criminal activities just prior to chokehold application.
Naturally, none of them were tried or convicted. In addition, the chokehold
victims who died may or may not have been resisting either a lawful or
unlawful arrest (both of which generally are illegal under California law).
Again, none were tried or convicted. The point is that all of the police
reports and other evidence show that no police officer who applied a chokehold
intended or expected to inflict serious bodily injury to
or death upon the victim. I do not personally believe that criminals or
persons justifiably suspected by the police as being criminals should be
immune from reasonable police force to take them into custody. But all
police officers I have ever talked with or elicited testimony from agree
that they should not use potentially lethal force unless the suspect
threatens "death or serious bodily harm to someone." In fairness, the police
officers and I often disagreed about how certain the potential ought
to be. You probably will too.
The LAPD problem was ill-conceived chokehold policy and the resulting
LAPD ILL-CONCEIVED POLICY
The LAPD had used chokeholds for more than 25 years in a Use-of-Force
progression just above billy clubs (called "batons" by the police) and
just below firearms. And the policy was that they could be used to subdue
"any resistance." Thus, chokeholds became a "means of dialogue" in LA's
minority communities. If you gave a policeman lip, you got choked. Meager
statistics ultimately developed by the LAPD showed 600 chokehold applications
The LAPD sought to distinguish two "types" of chokeholds. Both were
applied from behind the suspect and both were designed to bring about unconsciousness.
THE BAR ARM CONTROL
An officer applied the "bar arm" control by reaching one arm around the
suspect's neck, placing his forearm across the suspect's throat, grasping
that arm's hand with his other hand, and pulling back. The desired effect
was to close the suspect's windpipe so that no oxygen got to his lungs,
and no oxygenated blood got to his brain.
THE CAROTID CONTROL
An officer applied the "carotid" control by reaching one arm around the
suspect's neck, placing his elbow around the front of the neck, grasping
that arm's hand with his other hand, and pressing inward. The desired effect
was to close the carotid arteries on both sides of the neck so that no
oxygenated blood got to the suspect's brain.
The policy was also that chokeholds should be applied "until resistance
ceases," but for no longer than three minutes because injury could occur.
This was badly flawed. Medical experts uniformly agreed that unanticipated
strong pressure to the front of the throat or against the carotid arteries
induces an involuntary "fight to flee" syndrome in human beings. The body
perceives itself to be in deadly peril, adrenalin floods into the bloodstream,
and massive amounts of oxygenated blood speed to the strong muscles. The
body undertakes a violent struggle to escape the life-threatening situation.
So most "resistance" is violent, involuntary, and induced by the chokehold
As a result, in the field, it was almost impossible for an officer to
maintain one type of control or the other because of the suspect's violent
reaction. In one training incident, a cadet's neck was broken in a demonstration
of a chokehold.
Traveling up the sides of the human neck is a structure called the "carotid
sheath." Inside this sheath are (1) the carotid artery delivering oxygenated
blood to the brain, (2) the jugular vein delivering un-oxygenated blood
from the brain, and (3) the vagus nerve. The artery delivers blood at about
twice the pressure it returns through the vein. So modest pressure on both
carotid sheaths causes the head to fill with blood -- the head feels as
if it's going to burst. DON'T TRY THIS; IT IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. Severe
pressure on both carotid sheaths practically stops the flow of blood into
and out of the head.
Simultaneously, a big dose of adrenalin is signaling the heart to beat
faster to pump more blood.
But recall the vagus nerve is also in that sheath. That nerve, among
other things, regulates heartbeat. Pressure on one, much less two, vagal
nerves signals the heart to "Slow Down." And can even cause it to "Stop."
Chokeholds are like placing the front bumper of your car against a thick
stone wall, flooring the accelerator, and jamming on the brakes. Something
is soon going to give out, as happened in the sixteen chokehold deaths
You will note that 12 of the 16 dead were black males. This is a statistical
anomaly: black males then made up only eight percent of the population
of Los Angeles. It suggests ominous racial motivation in the chokings.
But it is more complex than it appears. See sickle
I sued the City and involved officers for money damages because
of several chokehold deaths. You can view details of the chokehold
lawsuits. And I tried limit chokehold use to situations were deadly
force was called for, only to get clobbered by the U.S. Supreme Court.
You can read about that battle and even listen to the oral argument in
the Supreme Court at the Lyons case.
CHOKEHOLD USE IS NOW LIMITED IN LOS ANGELES
After the chokehold death of James Thomas Mincey, Jr, -- a young black
man stopped by the LAPD for having a broken windshield -- in 1982, there
was an uproar of public outrage that led the Los Angeles Police Commission
temporarily to restrict chokeholds to situations involving the threat of
serious bodily injury or death. This restriction, recognizing that chokeholds
constitute deadly force, has never been lifted. In the 20 years since then,
there have been only two LAPD chokehold deaths: (1) Donald R. Wilson on
July 31, 1982 who was choked by two officers who had not been notified
of the restriction, and (2) Raul Guevara who was choked by a City jailor
in 1983. Unfortunately, there have been other
chokehold deaths in different jurisdictions. See the Los Angeles
Times, June 6, 2002, p. B4 (October 24, 2001 death of Frank Tranquilino
in custody of El Monte, California police. Mr. Tranquilino's 15-year-old
son is being represented by Beverly Hills, California civil rights lawyer
John E. Sweeney (310) 277-9595)