By Nigel Duara, CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday that he has directed California’s police training agency to stop teaching the carotid hold as part of an effort to create statewide standards to guide police use of force.
The move comes after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by pressing on his neck with his knee for almost nine minutes, triggering widespread protests around the nation seeking an end to policy brutality.
“We train techniques on strangleholds that put people’s lives at risk,” Newsom said at a press conference. “At the end of the day, a carotid hold that literally is designed to stop people’s blood from flowing into their brain, that has no place any longer in 21st century practices and policing.”
Also known as a sleeper hold, a carotid hold constrains the vascular veins on the side of a person’s neck to render them unconscious. It was not the same technique that the officer used to kill Floyd.
Newsom has limited authority
Although Newsom can stop the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training from teaching the technique, he does not have the authority to ban police departments from using it.
“Municipalities have different approaches, and it’s clear to me that we have to standardize those approaches,” Newsom said.
When contacted by CalMatters, several local law enforcement agencies declined to comment, saying they didn’t know enough about Newsom’s directive to comment.
The governor said that he would work with the Black Caucus, community leaders and law enforcement to come up with new statewide guidelines.
On Thursday, Assemblyman Mike Gipson, a Democrat from Compton, introduced a bill that would make carotid holds illegal. Newsom said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
“The world watched as the 200 pound weight of a police officer was leveraged on the neck of George Floyd for over 8 minutes. Two other officers held him down and another watched as his body succumbed to the attack and went limp before expiring,” Gipson said in a press release. “The deadly use of force technique can be performed using any object and can easily go wrong, this time it was a knee.”
Limiting the use of deadly force by police
Newsom said he wants new reforms to build on a landmark law that was enacted last year, limiting when officers in California can use deadly force. It says police may only use lethal force“when necessary in defense of human life.” That’s a tougher standard than prosecutors previously applied, which said officers could use deadly force when doing so is “reasonable.”
The law was inspired by the 2018 death of Stephon Clark, a black man who Sacramento police shot dead when they mistook the cell phone he was holding for a gun.
Law enforcement groups vehemently opposed early versions of the bill, but negotiated with civil rights advocates to craft a compromise that Newsom signed into law. It removed a paragraph saying police can only use deadly force when there is “no reasonable alternative,” leaving more discretion to courts to define in future cases whether a killing is “necessary.”
Newsom also signed a companion measure that was backed by law enforcement groups. It takes effect in January and will require training officers on the new deadly force standard with an emphasis on the need to “safeguard life, dignity, and liberty of all persons.” It also mandates that basic training for new officers includes de-escalation tactics and other alternatives to violence.
“That cannot happen soon enough,” Newsom said. “We are scrubbing components of that bill to see if we can fast-track and concentrate some of those provisions to advance the cause that brought us together on that bill.”
Joshua Chanin, a San Diego State associate professor of public policy, said Newsom lacks the authority to issue a blanket mandate for all local law enforcement agencies to follow.
“I think that unless there is a ruling that something violates the state constitution or state law, this does fall under local jurisdiction,” Chanin said. “The idea of standardizing at the state level, if not through the state training academy, would seem to be out of bounds with the state’s limited authority in that area.”
That doesn’t mean Newsom would be powerless if he were to run up against a recalcitrant police department. For instance, when the state of Louisiana refused to comply with a federal minimum drinking age in the 1980s, the federal government couldn’t mandate that the state comply. Instead, they cut the state’s highway funding.
“It seems like there are plenty of things he could do. He could hook state funding for things onto the banning of the carotid hold,” Chanin said. “But the Legislature is the group that should be deciding these kinds of things.”
The city of San Diego announced June 1 it would ban the use of the carotid hold. Fifteen San Diego-area law enforcement agencies, including the San Diego Sheriff’s Office, followed suit on Wednesday.
Vallejo police shooting
Earlier Friday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that the state’s Department of Justice will be reviewing the Vallejo Police Department’s use-of-force guidelines, training procedures and transparency protocols.
On Tuesday night, a Vallejo police officer shot and killed Sean Monterrosa, a 22-year-old, who was reportedly unarmed and kneeling. The officer, who fired from his car, was investigating the reported burglary of a pharmacy and claimed to have mistaken the hammer in Monterrosa’s pocket for a gun.
Becerra said that the announcement was not made in response “to a particular case” and that it will be a “systemic review of their policies and practices and protocols.”
Some civil rights organizations and community groups have long accused the Vallejo Police Department of excessive brutality and bias. Last year, the death of Willie McCoy, who was shot 25 times by police while sitting in his car with a gun on his lap, made international headlines. According to an analysis of public records by The Mercury News, the city has paid $7 million to settle legal claims since 2011, a significant sum for a city with a population of just over 100,000.
* Reporters Laurel Rosenhall and Ben Christopher contributed to this report.
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