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Controversial neck hold still being used by Mounties as RCMP reviews its safety

The RCMP says it hopes to have a decision later this year on whether it will continue teaching Mounties to use a controversial neck hold to subdue suspects.

In the meantime, new figures obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin under Access to Information legislation show the carotid restraint — while rare — is still in use.

When used properly, the carotid control technique — sometimes known as the “sleeper hold” or “blood choke” — applies pressure to both sides of a person’s neck without restricting the airway. The RCMP says it can cause a brief period of unconsciousness that allows a police officer to safely place an individual in handcuffs.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki announced a review of the technique’s role in RCMP training nine months ago, during the mass protests against police brutality that swept across North America in the wake of George Floyd’s death last spring.

The murder and manslaughter trial for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — who was caught on video last May pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes — is set to hear opening statements from the defence and prosecution teams late this month.

Demonstrators lie on the pavement during a protest against police brutality and racism last summer following the death of George Floyd. The RCMP’s decision to review the carotid technique came during a period of mass protests against police brutality across North America. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The RCMP has not suspended officers’ use of the carotid control technique while it conducts its review.

Figures show Mounties used the hold seven times in the first three months of 2021. Last year, the technique was used 26 times.

The RCMP says that when the hold is applied properly, it does not restrict breathing and does not put any pressure on the windpipe.

But the hold has caused injuries, according to data captured by the RCMP’s police intervention reporting app.

Between 2017 and 2021, the RCMP recorded six occasions when someone had to be taken to hospital following the application of a carotid hold — three in 2018, one in 2019 and two in 2020.

The RCMP has said that the hold may not have been the sole cause of injuries in those incidents.

During that same time period, officers reported another six injuries following the use of a carotid hold that did not require a hospital trip — one in 2017, two in 2018, two in 2019 and one in 2020.

The RCMP says there have been no reports of injuries stemming from the use of the carotid restraint so far this year.

The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP — the independent watchdog that reviews allegations of Mountie misconduct — said it’s received complaints alleging excessive use of force in two of the seven instances of Mounties using the carotid hold so far in 2021.

It received four complaints referencing the use of the carotid neck hold in 2020.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval said injury rates following the use of the carotid hold form a large part of the force’s review of the technique.

‘Very bad things can happen’

Former Ottawa police officer Greg Brown, now a research professor at Carleton University and a postdoctoral fellow at Osgoode Hall Law School, said he was wary of using the carotid hold in the field.

“I was just always very nervous because when you’re compressing the blood flow to somebody’s brain at the side of their neck, very bad things can happen,” he said.

While officers have the legal right to protect themselves in life-threatening situations, he said, the neck hold is a relic of 1970s-era policing the RCMP could consider abandoning.

“I would probably not officially sanction this technique. I don’t think I would train the technique. I think it’s dangerous from a physiological perspective,” he said.

“It’s also dangerous from a public relations perspective. The public seems to have a particular issue with this manoeuvre, especially in the light of the issue in Minneapolis with the murder of George Floyd.

“There’s a lot of spotlight on it, a lot of attention, and there’s a lot more effective techniques for gaining control over somebody.”

The RCMP said the carotid control is used on average 36 times per year — about once in every 76,000 events involving an RCMP response. According to the RCMP’s own data, officers are far more likely to pull out their guns than to use the carotid hold.

“Police officers must make split-second decisions when it comes to responding with intervention options, if necessary,” said Duval.

The neck hold’s infrequent use is in line with the RCMP’s “Incident Management Intervention Model,” which teaches officers to use hard force only in extreme cases to control a situation. RCMP officers renew that training every three years through a series of scenario-based exercises.

alain babineau
Alain Babineau, a former RCMP officer turned consultant, says that if the force decides to keep recommending the technique, it should require re-qualification training every year. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Alain Babineau, a consultant on public safety and racial profiling issues and a former RCMP officer, said that if the RCMP decides to keep using the technique, it should require re-qualification training every year, not every three years.

“When applied properly, it works like a charm. But the reality is that, in the heat of the situation, it’s not that easy,” he said.

“It’s kind of [a] perishable skill. So unless it’s used or practiced periodically, it’s something that you forget how to use properly.”

Babineau said the RCMP also needs to put more emphasis on training its officers to de-escalate potentially violent situations.

“I think we should teach police officers to to use their mouth more than to use chokeholds. I think, historically, officers have been far too quick to resort to those kinds of techniques. We have other tools, like tasers, pepper spray,” he said.

Babineau said police officers coping with “daily stress” and “reduced resources” frequently find themselves under heavy pressure to “resolve an issue very quickly.”

“And that kind of pressure leads them to to react, to escalate the force they are going to use in order to get to get compliance, rather than taking the time to resolve an issue with less forceful means,” he said.

Review launched after George Floyd’s death

The carotid hold differs from the restraint used by Chauvin. But in the wake of Floyd’s death, some law enforcement agencies in the U.S. announced bans on the use of the carotid neck restraint.

According to a briefing note obtained through access to information, the RCMP found itself under pressure from journalists in the weeks after Floyd’s death to “prove to Canadians that our police forces are different from and better than those south of the border.” 

“In particular, to explain whether Canadian officers have been trained not to do what U.S. officer (Mr.Chauvin) did; and, to explain how they deal with people in mental distress so that no one gets hurt,” says the briefing note.

incident management intervention model
The incident management intervention model is the framework RCMP officers are taught to use to assess what type of intervention is reasonable. (RCMP)

The RCMP said that while it does not teach its officers to put a knee on a suspect’s neck, it does believe it’s acceptable to use a knee in certain cases.

“There are instances in RCMP police defensive tactics training whereby it is appropriate for an officer to use their knee and place it on a citizen’s upper body during an arrest,” says the briefing note.

“However, there is specific training and instruction provided which directs officers not to use their knee on the suspect’s neck.”

The RCMP’s review of the carotid control technique is expected to wrap up later this year.

Union supports retaining the carotid hold

Duval said the RCMP is consulting police use-of-force researchers, criminologists and physicians in the course of the review.

“The RCMP’s involvement in this study will provide objective medical evidence of the risks and benefits of this intervention,” she said.

“This is critical to making evidence-based policy decisions on whether to continue teaching the technique, and if so, under what circumstances it should be employed.”

The National Police Federation, the union representing the more than 20,000 frontline Mounties, said it is not taking part in the review but supports the continued use of the carotid hold.

“We fully support keeping it as a primary means, when necessary, to prevent grievous bodily harm or death to a member or a member of the public,” said union spokesperson Fabrice de Dongo.

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