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What led to LAPD restricting neckholds in 1982? A doctor remembers

Since the killing of George Floyd, legislators and police departments have moved to ban the use of neckholds, which have long been controversial. LAPD had restricted the use of these back in 1982. What led to this change in police policy? Cardiologist Dr. Richard Allen Williams recalls the unsettling phone call that he says made a difference.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Since the killing of George Floyd back in May, legislators and police departments have moved to ban the use of neck restraints, which has long been controversial.

    One of the country's largest law enforcement agencies, the Los Angeles Police Department, severely restricted the technique back in 1982 after the use of neck restraints by police caused a wave of deaths.

    Los Angeles cardiologist Dr. Richard Allen Williams recalls an unsettling phone call that ultimately contributed to the change in police policy.

    His story is part of the KCET series "I was there."

  • Dr. Richard Allen Williams:

    My name is Dr. Richard Allen Williams. I'm a cardiologist and I'm on the faculty at UCLA School of Medicine, where I've been for 45 years.

    I want to take you back to the year 1982, when I had received a call from L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates, which surprised me.

    Chief Gates was a very forceful and aggressive police chief. He actually established what one might think of as a militarized police department. So on weekends in particular, he would send 500 or 1,000 people into specific sites of L.A. and the police would simply descend upon these people who were out in the street at night and start mass arrests, bring them in, and lock them up.

  • Daryl Gates:

    Aggressive doesn't mean the use of force. Aggressive means that we move into crime situations and deal with them.

  • Dr. Richard Allen Williams:

    I don't know where he got my number from. But in any event, he said, I'd like to discuss a very delicate medical manner with you.

    And Chief Gates asked me if I could verify the fact or, according to him, the fact that African-Americans were very susceptible to chokeholds because they had an anatomical defect in their necks.

    And so he was suggesting that Blacks were not normal in regards to their neck anatomy and that therefore it was their fault that they were dying. Not the fault of the police. And he wanted to know if I would agree with him.

    And I told him no, Chief Gates, I don't agree with that. I think that this is something that cannot defend. The real reason is that there were more chokeholds being applied to Blacks.

    Over a period of a few months, 16 men who were taken into police custody died from chokeholds, and 12 of those were African-American or Black. There was a good deal of controversy in the city about this. At that time. Well, there actually were two chokeholds, there was one that was called the bar hold. And then there was the carotid chokehold, which reduced the blood flow to the brain and caused the individual to pass out and die.

  • Daryl Gates:

    And when these holes are applied properly, it is our feeling that they are not life-threatening holds.

  • Dr. Richard Allen Williams:

    Ultimately, the L.A. Police Commission had decided to eliminate all chokeholds in the city of Los Angeles. And that's where it is today.

    In California, there's an assembly bill which is, is pending right now. If that passes and is signed, then the chokehold will no longer exist throughout California. But that's just one state.

    George Floyd died from a chokehold with a knee to his neck from the police. And there was also the case of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014 where the chokehold was applied.

    We are able to see racism live and up close, and this should propel us to do something definitive. And at this point, finally, to eradicate that, I think elimination of the chokehold is the first step in that process.

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