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Amid protests over police brutality, Spokane police demonstrate tactics

June 11, 2020 Updated Thu., June 11, 2020 at 11:31 p.m.

Spokane Police Academy trainer Jake Jensen demonstrates how SPD officers are taught to handcuff prone suspects, both when they are cooperative and when they are combative.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Spokane Police Academy trainer Jake Jensen demonstrates how SPD officers are taught to handcuff prone suspects, both when they are cooperative and when they are combative. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Only a few inches separate the neck from the shoulder.

But to a person under the weight of an officer’s knee – and in the wake of George Floyd’s killing – they’re a world apart.

Following a state directive, Spokane police will begin training officers to limit the use of a knee to a person’s neck while handcuffing them face-down on the ground “unless there are no other reasonable alternatives.”

The department has not outright banned the technique, which is a component of what police refer to as “prone cuffing,” but have declared it an “exceptional technique.” That means it should be used only in dire circumstances, and it will require greater justification by the officer who uses it.

Spokane is one of many cities around the country rethinking and adjusting its acceptable uses of force in response to nationwide protests over police brutality.

Members of the media were invited into the Spokane Police Department Training Center on Thursday for a look at how officers would be instructed in the coming days as part of already-planned training that happens regularly throughout the year.

Jesse Tinsley - The Spokesman-Review

Department leaders will focus on three key points: placing the knee across the shoulder of a prone suspect instead of the neck, ensuring the level of pressure is proportional to the level of resistance, and limiting the duration of that pressure.

“It’s not necessarily new, it’s more or less really emphasizing that, hey, this time that we’re in right now, we have to adapt, we have to evolve, and we have to make sure we’re doing this the right way,” said Spokane Police Officer Jake Jensen, who trains officers.

The training begins on Friday and takes place over the course of several weeks.

The killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer May 25 sparked outrage and nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice . Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes. Floyd told officers, “I can’t breathe,” which has again become a rallying cry of protesters – including in Spokane, where thousands have taken to the streets on back-to-back Sundays.

The tactics used by Chauvin to restrain Floyd – who had been suspected only of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby store – received widespread condemnation by policing experts.

In his book “Evaluating Police Uses of Force,” Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, wrote that “Officers should avoid putting their body weight on the subject’s neck or head; the pressure of such a position can fracture the hyoid bone or cervical spine, depending on the position of the subject’s head.”

Floyd’s death also resulted in criticism from police.

“I can’t fathom what was going on, I don’t understand how that could have happened that way,” said Sgt. Terry Preuninger, SPD spokesman.

After Floyd’s death, the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission said that it does not train officers to use their knee on the neck to restrain a person, either before or after they are in handcuffs, but that trainees were not explicitly instructed to avoid the maneuver. Moving forward, the commission said it will clearly tell officers not to use a knee to the neck.

In Spokane, an officer was allowed to use a knee or shin on a person’s neck to restrain them until last week. Following the state commission’s statement, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said it would be classified as an “exceptional technique,” used only in instances when “approved tactics are not sufficient,” Jensen said.

“With this directive from the training commission, really, we have to fall in line,” Jensen explained.

The change comes as many question Spokane police’s use of the tactic.

Earlier this month, a Seattle woman shared photos she captured of an arrest by Spokane Police of a homeless man in Riverfront Park in March. The man, who had allegedly tossed a box or glass pipe into the Spokane River when seen by a park ranger, told officers he could not breathe while at least one kneeled on his neck.

Body camera footage released by Spokane police last week shows that the officer, Andrew Bjur, remained on Corey West’s neck for about 50 seconds after the man was in handcuffs.

West received scrapes, but did not suffer serious injuries. Neither the park ranger nor any of the several officers who responded to the incident have been disciplined. It is under investigation by the department’s internal affairs unit.

Protesters calling for an end to racial injustice and police brutality were met with force on May 31.

In an arrest captured on video, Andrea “Drea” Rose Gallardo was taken down by police in a tear-gas-filled street and restrained with a knee to her neck. Gallardo told The Spokesman-Review she had been protesting nonviolently when police gave a dispersal order, but she was trapped by tear gas when an officer ran up and took her to the ground.

Jensen stressed that Spokane trains its officers to continually assess their level of force. If a suspect complies after being hit with a stun gun, for example, “I have to bump it down.”

“You have to be able to change gears and adapt to the situation,” Jensen said.

The video of Floyd’s killing showed police failing to adapt to the level of resistance, according to Jensen.

The level of pressure being applied by a knee can be difficult to determine from any viewpoint other than the person who is beneath it or the officer applying it, as Jensen demonstrated. But indications he considers when reviewing the use of force include whether the officer’s feet appear to be floating – meaning full weight is on the suspect. If the officer is on the ball of their foot, there is likely less pressure exerted on the person beneath them.

Prone cuffing is used in a high-level situation where officers need to keep distance and order someone to the ground – think of an armed bank robber – or a suspect is being combative.

Pressure is pivotal to prone cuffing, police stressed.

“Optically, a knee on the neck looks terrible, but if there’s no pressure on it, it’s not really doing anything,” Jensen said. “We’re not justifying it, but I want you to understand the pressure is the biggest piece.”

The duration the knee is applied is also a factor.

“This shouldn’t be a long, drawn-out process,” he said. “If it’s a one-on-one thing, do it, get the cuffs on, let the pressure off and move on.”

If a suspect tells an officer they cannot breathe, the officer should adjust to accommodate that need, Jensen said. That could include talking to a suspect in a calming tone and reassuring that person that they can, in fact, breathe.

But in multiple police killings, including Floyd’s, suspects have warned police that they couldn’t breathe only to be ignored.

Preuninger said if a person is talking, it demonstrates that they are receiving some level of oxygen.

“Just because they said they couldn’t breathe and they died doesn’t mean they died because they couldn’t breathe,” he said, noting that a person could have a preexisting condition that contributed to their death.

But Preuninger clarified that officers are not trained that if a person is talking they can breathe. Police said they also look for other symptoms of physical distress and can call for medical assistance, as well as place a person in a more comfortable position.

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