OC law enforcement ahead of curve on policing reforms


Calls for reform in police practices and departments are reverberating nationally in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks by police in Minneapolis and Atlanta.

Issues have been raised in a wide variety of areas, most notably the use of force and chokeholds.

Law enforcement leaders in many of Orange County’s 23 police agencies and sheriff’s department are already ahead of the curve in implementing reform and discussing the nature of policing.

For weeks, numerous mostly peaceful protests have been held throughout the county.

While the immediate focus of the police has been on managing the on-going protests, leaders are mindful of looming issues.

Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin wrote to residents that the killing of Floyd was “not in compliance with the law and not supported by policing practices, use of force contemporary practices, and — more importantly — it’s just a disregard for human life.”

Continuing the chief said, “We know what occurred was wrong. As a society, and a policing industry, what can we do to address that?”

At the center of much of the debate is the use of chokeholds and techniques in the area of the neck to subdue and restrain suspects.

On June 8, Democrats in the California legislature formally introduced laws backed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to ban police from using neck restraints, including chokeholds and the more widely accepted carotid artery restraints.

Many police departments have banned the chokehold, or bar-arm chokehold, unless an officer’s life is in peril.

The chokehold, as most understand it, compresses the windpipe and prevents air flow. That technique has been banned by the Los Angeles Police Department since 1982.

The carotid hold, however, is taught and employed in many departments and compresses the arteries on both sides of the neck to restrict blood flow to the brain and also causes unconsciousness.

Adding language about carotid artery holds and other restraint techniques to the California law could make it more restrictive than any other state. Ironically, it does not cover the kneeling restraint that led to Floyd’s death.

After Democrats announced their proposed legislation, Santa Ana and other police departments including Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Fullerton and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department suspended the practice.

Although rare, Santa Ana police have used the carotid hold technique and documented when it was applied. In the May 2020 Use of Force Report, Santa Ana police reported using the hold four times in 33 incidents arising from nearly 16,000 calls for service.

In Anaheim, police have also suspended the use of carotid artery hold, and say so in big red letters in the APD Policy Manuel.

Police Chief Jorge Cisneros wrote in a letter to the community, “Anaheim Police Department has never approved a choke or stranglehold as an appropriate technique.”

The Huntington Beach Police Department in a press release announced the end of the use of carotid hold, as did the Fullerton Police Department in a memorandum.

Huntington Police Chief Rob Handy also reflected on the killing of Floyd, writing of his “disbelief” at the actions of the officers and calling them “inconsistent with modern policing standards.”

“Let me be clear – what we saw in the video stands in direct conflict with our values here in the Huntington Beach Police Department, and in violation of the values that guide the policing profession,” he wrote.

The La Habra Police Department does not authorize chokeholds or strangleholds and recently published on social media a response to recent questions about law enforcement policies, particularly regarding use of force, across the country.

The department policies no longer allow carotid holds. Previously, officers had to immediately report if they used the hold. The La Habra Police Department policy manual is available in print or online.

Nationally, Congressional Democrats have proposed a legislative package that calls for a ban on all neck restraints, according to CNN. President Donald Trump, though he stopped short of full support of a ban, said late last week police should avoid using chokeholds.

An NPR review of bans on neck restraints in some of the nation’s largest police departments found them largely ineffective and subject to lax enforcement.

Orange County police departments are on the leading edge for a number of issues and working on others. These include racial relations and profiling, community policing and relationships, command and civilian oversight, use of body cameras and transparency, particularly through use of social media.

In his letter to the community, Cisneros wrote that many of Anaheim’s existing policies and procedures already “exceed the spirit of the proposed policy language” promoted by police reform advocates.

These include prohibiting “bias-based” policing, becoming the first police department in the county to use body worn cameras and employing a force analysis system to track uses of force.

Cisneros also touted the department’s community engagement, work with mental health professionals on de-escalation methods, and inviting clinicians on ride-alongs to offer services.

The department also has a Duty to Intercede policy requiring officers witnessing unreasonable force to intervene and report the incident immediately and requires officers to report anytime an officer points a gun at anyone and anytime handcuffs are used, regardless of whether an arrest is made.

In Santa Ana, in the wake of the civil unrest, Valentin said, “I hope as the days go and we move forward, the underlying cause and messaging returns to the focus and where it needs to be, which is a nonviolent, constructive approach to issues.”

“Some of these are very broad systemic issues, some specific to this industry of policing. That can only be done through constructive dialogue and a meaningful approach to the broader issue,” he said.

Valentin said the Santa Ana Police Department already has a robust, contemporary policy and procedure framework based on a de-escalation approach to all incidents.

Across the county, police departments are beefing up their communications on websites and a variety of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and often use these spaces to explain issues such as use of force.

Orange County police departments have already been working on establishing policies for: racial relations and profiling, community policing and relationships, command and civilian oversight, use of body cameras and transparency, particularly through use of social media.

The La Habra Police Department shared with residents its policies on use of force due to “questions and concerns about law enforcement and the amount of force used when officers make an arrest.”

Such missives are becoming the rule rather than the exception as law enforcement seeks to remain in contact and available to the public.

Although these are tumultuous times for the relationship between the public and police, chiefs across the region want citizens to know they are on their side and they have their back.

As Valentin put it, “It’s most important to always keep at the forefront that you’re in the people business. We’re dealing with human beings and it’s imperative that everyone is treated with dignity and respect… it’s the Golden Rule. Treat people the way you want to be treated.”

“Although Orange County serves as a leader in policing across the State and Country, it’s critical that we take the time to listen to our communities and our officers. We can always be better as an industry and we will be, as we continue to partner with those that we serve,” Valentin added.