Amid outcry, these police agencies banned chokeholds. But critics say more reforms needed

Laveta Brigham

Demonstrators protesting the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers have held various positions ⁠— some have called for reforms of policing methods, some want police budgets slashed and some want law enforcement agencies reconfigured into public safety departments with a very different mission. […]

Demonstrators protesting the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers have held various positions ⁠— some have called for reforms of policing methods, some want police budgets slashed and some want law enforcement agencies reconfigured into public safety departments with a very different mission.

Whatever the demand, the protests seem to have finally pushed police departments, at least in the big cities, to make changes to policing protocols after years of stonewalling.

An exclusive McClatchy survey of police departments in the 100 biggest American cities found that 40 police forces have made at least one change to their use-of-force policy — including the use of lethal force — in June, after protests rocked the nation.

Tampa, Hialeah and Orlando police departments are the Florida agencies that have announced changes to their use-of-force regulations, including the controversial carotid hold that cuts off blood supply to the brain. The Miami Police Department had already prohibited it earlier this year.

Fresno and Sacramento police departments are among 11 departments in California that have made changes to their policies. Law enforcement agencies in the state have rushed to make revisions after Gov. Gavin Newsom came out in support of a bill aimed at tightening restrictions around use of force and decertified the carotid hold, making departments still using it vulnerable to litigation. The Los Angeles Police Department had already prohibited neck restraints.

Raleigh and Winston-Salem in North Carolina, Lincoln and Omaha in Nebraska and Oakland, California have announced that their entire use-of-force policies were being reviewed.

Police departments in two cities — Columbus, Ohio and Aurora, Colorado — acknowledged when asked by McClatchy that the protests had at least some role to play in the revisions to their protocols.

The New York Police Department, recently under fire for its aggressive approach in cracking down on Black Lives Matter protesters and with a history of excessive use of force, did not respond to McClatchy’s requests for information. Nor does it post its policies online.

Kara Gross, the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Florida chapter, said that police departments are finally waking up and “listening to their communities” but more concrete measures need to be enacted to ensure officers are held accountable.

“If people aren’t held accountable for their actions, then this is nothing more than lip service,” she said.

McClatchy’s findings come on the back of Democrats passing a sweeping police reform bill in the House last month. The bill, which now heads to the Senate ⁠— and is expected to be blocked by the GOP, which has passed its own measure in the upper chamber ⁠— bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug raids, mandates data collection on police encounters and makes it easier to pursue legal claims against law enforcement officers.

“For far too long, Black Americans have endured systemic racism and discrimination — especially from police,” said U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat who had introduced the bill with her colleagues in the Democratic Black Caucus, in a public statement after its passage.

“Congress may have written this bill, but the people own it.”

Table of Contents

Restrictions, reviews

McClatchy’s review of the use-of-force policies covered five parameters put forth by the non-profit Campaign Zero, on rules surrounding the reporting of use of force and shooting at moving vehicles, the application of all kinds of neck restraints, the issuance of warnings before officers resort to deadly force and the exhaustion of all other options before doing so.

McClatchy found:

Police forces in 30 cities had already banned or restricted the use of neck restraints — including chokeholds, strangleholds, vascular neck restraints and carotid holds — to only situations where deadly force was permitted. After the protests, departments in 23 more cities, including in Hialeah, Florida and Sacramento, California, joined them. The policies of 12 more are being reviewed.

Five police departments — Durham, North Carolina; Houston, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Tampa, Florida; and Omaha, Nebraska — joined 43 others in explicitly stating that officers must exhaust all other options before resorting to deadly force.

Twelve police departments changed their policy and now require officers to issue a verbal warning before resorting to deadly force. Eight of them, including those of Tampa, Florida, and Durham, North Carolina, have an officer-linked fatality rate higher than the national average, according to data from 2013 to 2019 on police-linked homicides compiled by Campaign Zero, which advocates for community policing, demilitarization of law enforcement and an end to “broken windows” police policies.

Police forces in 18 cities had policies that barred officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless the suspect was threatening to cause harm with means other than the vehicle itself. Five departments — among them Fresno, California — have enacted the same policy since the protests and six more, including Raleigh, North Carolina, are reviewing their protocols regarding shooting at vehicles.

Thirty-one police departments have rules that include the mere pointing of a firearm or less lethal weapon like a TASER as a reportable use of force. The Tampa Police Department and four other departments have introduced rules to adopt the same policy. Three other departments are reviewing their policies.

The police department of Kansas City, Missouri, is the only department among the 100 McClatchy reviewed that did not meet any of the five criteria.

“I think there are political dynamics here in Kansas City which continue to shield the KCPD from the kind of pressure and the kind of accountability that is necessary in order to bring the changes and reform that we here at SCLC have been demanding for years,” said the Rev. Vernon Howard, a civil rights activist with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Kansas City.

“We do not feel that there is sufficient pressure from city government or sufficient pressure from the Board of Police Commissioners to hold KCPD accountable and to hold the chief [of police] accountable.”

Follow the money

The political clout law enforcement unions enjoy and allegedly use to stonewall reforms has been the subject of controversy time and again. In the past few weeks, protesters have called for national labor federations to expel police unions, and candidates of the Democratic Party — which commands most labor votes — to renounce them.

A McClatchy analysis of campaign finance data compiled by the non-profits Center for Responsive Politics and MapLight shows that at the federal level, police unions and their employees have contributed roughly $1.9 million from the 2010 to 2018 election cycles, with roughly equal shares going to both parties.

The unions also spent around $9.1 million lobbying Capitol Hill, the White House, the Justice Department and other agencies from 2010 to the present day.

Police unions in Florida spent at least $3.8 million in campaign contributions for state election candidates, while those in California spent roughly $11 million from 2010 to 2019.

The Rev. Bryson White, faith leadership coordinator with Faith in the Valley, said that while Fresno’s recent ban on the chokehold and other changes by other police departments are welcome, it is not a victory since it “doesn’t get to the root cause of police violence.”

Rev. Bryson White, faith leadership coordinator with Faith in the Valley
Rev. Bryson White, faith leadership coordinator with Faith in the Valley

White said that a major victory for him and the California faith-based community organization would be for politicians to renounce and send back campaign contributions they receive from the police unions. According to White, accepting those contributions “will limit their ability to hold the police department accountable” if they are elected.

“Why do they believe that it’s OK for officers to kill people who are predominantly black and brown people?” White asked. “They need to be held accountable for that.”

Like White, ACLU Florida’s Kara Gross said that “cracking down on law enforcement’s excessive use-of-force tactics is only as effective as the accountability measures in place.”

“It is not a case of a few bad apples, the current system is rotten at its core.”

The Fresno Bee’s Yesenia Amaro and the Kansas City Star’s Katie Bernard contributed to the story.

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