In response to global outrage at the death of George Floyd who died as a police officer kneeled on his neck for over 8 minutes, the Honolulu Police Department will temporarily stop using vascular neck restraints.

The tactic restricts blood flow to the brain and renders a person unconscious. It is different from a chokehold, which restricts a person’s airway. Last week, the department started reviewing its use of force policy “very closely” and decided to make the change on Monday morning, according to Chief Susan Ballard.

“It is taught to our recruits as one of the last resorts when it comes to use of force,” she said of the VNR technique. “Any excessive use of force is unacceptable. What happened to Mr. Floyd is tragic, it’s criminal and it should’ve never happened.”

Honolulu Police Department Chief Susan Ballard says her officers will no longer be allowed to use a particular type of neck hold as a tactic to restrain suspects. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

So-called VNRs are used rarely, according to the chief. Last year, she estimated, it was used five times.

“Considering the number of use of forces that we have, that’s a very minimal number,” she said. “That being said, because it is a very precise movement, and usually if your adrenaline is going, it may not be the most appropriate thing.”

Ballard said a committee is reviewing whether VNRs should be used only in cases where deadly force is warranted. She did not say who is on the committee.

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said she was unable to immediately provide a list of members on Monday afternoon.

HPD can still use Tasers, pepper spray, batons and other types of force, Ballard said. Officers are taught to use the least amount of force that is necessary to achieve compliance, she said.

Once a subject starts to comply, officers are trained to de-escalate. Ballard said she hesitated to change the VNR policy because she doesn’t like taking options away from her officers that may help them in the field.

What exactly HPD’s use of force policy said about VNRs and what it says now is unclear. The department has blacked out a large section of the policy on its website. Asked about this at the press conference on Monday, Ballard said “they are techniques that we chose to redact.”

When the city finishes its review of the use of force policy, “you’ll see less redactions,” Ballard said.

By email, HPD spokeswoman Yu said the policy is redacted pursuant to HRS Section 92F-13(3) – a section of the open records law that allows agencies to withhold information “to avoid the frustration of a legitimate government function.” She provided no further explanation.

On Monday afternoon, the chief appeared to object to comments made earlier in the day by two attorneys Mayor Kirk Caldwell nominated to the Honolulu Police Commission. Former Family Court Judge Michael Broderick and former Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, who also served as Hawaii’s attorney general, said they wanted to review HPD policies and consider reform measures proposed by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Just because Broderick and Chin are attorneys doesn’t make them law enforcement experts, Ballard said.

“We can’t forget that they make instantaneous decisions,” Ballard said of her officers. “They don’t have time to slow down the frame, bit by bit, to see what’s going on. They don’t have time to turn around and consult with somebody else to decide what it is that they need to do. They have to make split-second decisions.”

Ballard said that she believes Honolulu is different from mainland police departments because HPD officers live in the neighborhoods they patrol.

Supporters of George Floyd rally fronting the Capitol with a sign that reads, ‘Stop Police Brutality’.
Thousands protested police brutality in Honolulu over the weekend, joining a movement that has gone global. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“It’s a whole different dynamic over here than it is on the mainland,” she said.

Even still, she said officers receive annual training on racial bias and already have in place other reforms being proposed by activists in the Black Lives Matter movement.

For at least two years, HPD officers have received formal training on their duty to intervene when their peers are misbehaving, Ballard said.

When it comes to shooting at moving cars, Ballard said she is hesitant to rule it out because it may be necessary to protect the lives of officers and civilians.

Departments nationwide have been criticized for purchasing and deploying military equipment. HPD recently procured a Bearcat, a military-style armored vehicle designed to respond to high-level threats and terrorist attacks. Ballard said HPD hasn’t transferred any equipment from the military to the department in the two and half years since she’d been at the helm. She said the Bearcat has been “extremely useful in the protection of lives of innocent people” including two to three barricade situations.

“There are uses for it, but then again, it shouldn’t be overused,” she said, adding that it’s up to HPD leadership to ensure the equipment is used responsibly.

Amid talk of reform, the department continues to keep secret the names of officers accused of wrongdoing and the details of their misconduct.

“The law, 92F, says that we do not have to,” Ballard said, referring to Hawaii’s open records law. “If the law is changed, that we need to publish those, then, of course, we will follow the law.”

Ballard noted that the department did plan to release arbitration records in the case of Darren Cachola, a cop who was caught on video beating his girlfriend, but the police union filed a legal challenge against the release. A Circuit Court judge ruled the records should be released but SHOPO appealed and the case is awaiting a ruling by the Hawaii Supreme Court.

The chief emphasized that her police officers are human.

“We’re not perfect,” she said. “And we would hope we’re able to find those officers who don’t deserve to wear the badge before something like this happens. And I think we have a very strong program here at HPD. We’re not infallible, but I think we do a pretty darn good job.”

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