The federal government’s demand that the Mounties ban the use of a controversial neck restraint is not backed up by evidence, says the RCMP’s external advisory board.
In a mandate letter issued to then RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki last year, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino instructed her to prohibit “the use of neck restraints in any circumstance.” The request is also part of the mandate letter Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued to Mendicino.
But in a recent letter obtained by CBC News, the RCMP’s Management Advisory Board (MAB) — an independent group of experts who provide advice and guidance to the national police force — said the carotid control technique can be justified as an alternative to lethal force in some cases.
“After thorough study and difficult deliberation, the MAB has concluded that the mandate letter commitments against the use of any neck restraint or tear gas are not supported by the available evidence,” said the June 20 letter from MAB chair Kent Roach to RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme.
“To formally prohibit their use could have unintended consequences that could increase the use of greater and perhaps even more lethal options.”
Lucki promised to review the carotid control technique (CCT) after George Floyd’s death in 2020 stirred an international controversy over police use of force. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering the 46-year-old man after kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
While the carotid control hold is not a chokehold, it involves placing lateral pressure on the carotid arteries in a way that impedes the flow of blood to the brain. It can cause a person to lose consciousness.
The hold doesn’t restrict breathing when it’s used properly. Its use has been questioned publicly ever since Floyd’s death, however, and a number of U.S. police forces have banned the CCT hold.
Earlier this year, the RCMP announced it would continue using the carotid control technique in extreme situations. That set off a war of words with Mendicino.
Roach wrote that MAB received briefings from both the RCMP and Public Safety Canada, including an operational demonstration of the carotid control technique on two of its members.
It also reviewed available medical data and examined Ontario’s decision in 1992 to prohibit the use of carotid control techniques after a person died due to acute asphyxia and laryngeal trauma. The board said the effect on that victim was consistent with a chokehold rather than the carotid control technique.
Hold meant for extreme cases
In his letter, Roach points out that RCMP policy limits the use of the carotid hold to those with approved training, and to circumstances involving a subject causing “grievous bodily harm or death, or when the member believes, on reasonable grounds, that the subject will imminently cause grievous bodily harm or death.”
The RCMP used the carotid hold 25 times in 2020, 14 times in 2021 and about 14 times in 2022, according to figures sent to the board.
In 20 per cent of instances, the use of the carotid control technique resulted in a person losing consciousness, said the letter, adding that the injury rate with CCT is lower than all other intervention options apart from pepper spray
“The fact that in most cases a person becomes subdued, and therefore not dangerous, before losing consciousness can be seen as a measure of the effectiveness of the method,” wrote Roach.
MAB said that after reviewing the evidence, it supports the RCMP’s decision to train and recertify its officers on how to use the carotid technique.
“Although the CCT can be a seen as a neck restraint, the evidence firmly supports that it is both less dangerous and more effective than the chokehold,” said the letter.
“Not all neck restraints are the same. The use of the CCT could, in some circumstances, be a justified alternative to the use of lethal force.”
MAB did recommend the RCMP look into increasing the frequency of recertification from once every three years to once a year. It also urged the RCMP to undertake a thorough review every time the carotid control technique is used.
“It would also be appropriate for the policy on training, use, reporting and review of the CCT to be subject to a public ministerial directive. The MAB cautions, however, that any ministerial directive should be evidence-based, detailed and contribute to public education and the maintenance of public confidence,” wrote Roach.
Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Mendicino’s office, told CBC News the minister “issued clear instructions” to the RCMP to “prohibit the use of neck restraints in any circumstance and the use of tear gas or rubber bullets for crowd control, alongside developing national standards for the use-of-force.”
Cohen pointed out that many police departments already have banned neck restraints. “This includes the Ontario Provincial Police, cities like Edmonton, Winnipeg and Fredericton and the majority of major police departments in the United States,” he said in a written response.
“We continue to work with the RCMP to implement these reforms, as well as consult other police forces who have successfully made similar changes. Our expectation is that the RCMP implements these important steps, that they strive to set the gold standard when it comes to use of force and that they advance the reforms necessary to maintain the confidence of all Canadians.”
Sponge rounds, CS gas sometimes needed: board
Mendicino’s mandate letter also calls for a ban on RCMP “use of tear gas or rubber bullets for crowd control.”
“The RCMP does not possess nor use rubber bullets,” said the Management Advisory Board.
The force does use two other crowd-control tools: sponge rounds and CS gas.
The Mounties’ Extended Range Impact Weapons (ERIW) fire 40 mm high-speed projectiles consisting of a plastic body and sponge nose.
They are meant to allow officers to respond from a greater distance to a subject who may want to harm themselves or others.
CS gas irritates the mucous membranes, causing a burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat, nasal discharge and tearing, and causing the subject’s eyes to close.
MAB reported the RCMP has deployed CS gas during only two public order events so far: the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riots and the occupation of downtown Ottawa in February 2022 by protesters rejecting COVID-19 public health measures.
Mendicino’s office said in a February statement that it used the terms “rubber bullets” and “tear gas” in the mandate letter “as they are general language understood by most Canadians.”
“The MAB has also concluded on the available evidence that the use of CS gas and sponge rounds could be justified in some circumstances, such as those of dealing with a riot and against a person who is causing public harm or, on reasonable grounds, will imminently cause bodily harm,” Roach wrote in his letter.
“The MAB supports the RCMP’s proposal to develop policies that would limit the use of these less lethal techniques and require public reporting and review of the use of these polices.”