File photo

File photo

Federal Way Police Department bans neck restraints, chokeholds

Officers have used a vascular neck restraint 41 times in past five years

The Federal Way Police Department will no longer use any variations of neck restraints due to a policy change made this week, according to the department.

The decision was brought forth by the department’s command staff and ultimately decided upon by Police Chief Andy Hwang, FWPD Cmdr. Kurt Schwan told the Mirror. The ban went into effect June 24.

Prior to June 24, the department had used one method of a vascular neck restraint (VNR), which is the compression on the sides of the neck to momentarily impede blood flow to the brain.

This technique is not a chokehold, which blocks the airway and restricts oxygen, Schwan said. Chokeholds were already prohibited by FWPD’s policy.

Federal Way police were evaluating their use of vascular neck restraints, largely because of the 2014 excessive force incident when then-21-year-old resident Josiah Hunter, a Black man, was put into a chokehold by a Federal Way officer. Hunter later sued the city for excessive force and was recently awarded $400,000 in April.

The Federal Way officer who choked Hunter, Officer Kris Durell, remains on the police force, Schwan said June 24.

A May 2019 KUOW investigation revealed Durell’s personnel file includes a reprimand for disrespecting another officer, along with five preventable car crashes, entering a house without a warrant and two officer-involved shootings.

Sanetta Hunter, the mother of Josiah Hunter, was overwhelmed with emotion when she found out about the department’s policy change for neck restraints.

“We’ve been wanting this for so long and they [Federal Way] have fought so hard for the last six years defending their policy,” she said. “The fact that they finally changed it is incredible.”

At the Federal Way City Council meeting June 16, Sanetta Hunter urged the council to continue reviewing policies surrounding police accountability. In the Hunter lawsuit, Federal Way cost taxpayers more than $655,000 (including legal fees) due to an officer’s misconduct, she said.

The family didn’t want a lawsuit, she said. All the Hunters ever wanted was change.

“I don’t want another mother to go through this, or another son to suffer the way mine has,” Sanetta Hunter told the Mirror on June 24, struggling to speak through her tears. “I’m so thankful he lived to tell his story … He should’ve never had to go through it.”

Sanetta Hunter said she and her son are grateful the city has finally come to the right resolution and is hopeful the department will continue to review their policies to “do right by the people of Federal Way.”

“Everybody wins with something like this,” she said. “This is good news for everybody.”

In the past five years, Federal Way police used a VNR 41 times in total with no complaints of injury internally or externally, according to the department. The neck restraint technique is no longer used as a control hold, which is how it was used in the Hunter incident, and is now restricted to use on combative, assaultive, or violent subjects, Schwan said.

Due to today’s political climate and current events, Schwan said in a previous interview that a statewide mandate banning certain control movements may be on the horizon. FWPD’s ban on neck restraints comes one week after his statement.

The Federal Way Police Department often refers to “use of force” as “response to resistance,” Schwan said.

“Officers just don’t show up and start swinging a baton at people,” he said. “They’re responding to something that that person is doing, whether it’s resistive or assaultive or something else.”

The decision of which response techniques to use is gauged by the type of crime, physical distance or environment, and the officer’s understanding or knowledge of the situation, Schwan said.

“Using force immediately brings the vision of applying violence to somebody, and that’s not what we’re doing,” Schwan said. “However, I’ll be the first one to tell you, if you were to sit there and watch someone use force on somebody — or respond to resistance — it’s always ugly.”

Force techniques include control holds, strikes with hands (fist or palm), use of pepper spray, vascular neck restraints, use of batons, tasers, K-9 dog bites, 40mm “less lethal” firings and officer-involved shootings.

The latest officer-involved shooting in Federal Way happened Dec. 31, 2019, when 23-year-old Malik Williams, a paraplegic Black man, was shot and killed by Federal Way police. The investigation, which is still ongoing, found Williams was the first to open fire at the officers. Investigators recovered 84 casings from the scene, but until ballistics return from the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, it is undetermined how many bullets were fired by the officers — and which officers — and how many bullets were fired by Williams.

Six of the seven Federal Way officers involved in the fatal shooting have returned to full duty. One officer has not returned because he is still recovering from a gunshot wound sustained during the shootout.

Some of the most common use of force tactics practiced by the FWPD include the use of the K-9 unit and 40mm “less lethal” firings, Schwan said. Of all their tactics, he said tasers and physical force/strikes without weapons (meaning punches, takedowns, etc.) are also common.

All of the use of force data is tracked, evaluated and updated in an annual assessment to determine what needs to be done for the safety of those in custody and the officers, Schwan said.

“There’s no pretty technique,” Schwan said. “It’s about winning that battle right then to get that person into custody as quick as possible with the least use of force as possible.”

Another controversial and potentially deadly technique used within police forces across the nation is the knee on the neck restraint, which is how George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed when a white officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

“If you can keep control of the head, it makes it easier to handcuff the person and get them into custody,” Schwan said. “Now once that person is in custody, there is no longer any need to have your knee on [the neck].”

Actions taken by the officers in Minneapolis in the George Floyd case was “inappropriate” and there was no need to remain in that position, Schwan said.

FWPD moved away from the knee on the neck movement around two years ago, he said. Now the department uses a knee on the back or shoulder area to maintain control.

“We re-evaluate things all the time and figure out what’s better, what will be better received as well, because everything is optics,” he said. “The goal is to use the least amount of force possible.”

Click here to read the FWPD’s manual of standards.

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