4 Investigates: Chokehold policies vary across law enforcement agencies in NM | KOB 4

4 Investigates: Chokehold policies vary across law enforcement agencies in NM

Nathan O'Neal
Updated: August 13, 2020 06:13 PM
Created: August 12, 2020 03:09 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- Recent high profile deaths have police chokeholds and neck-holds under scrutiny with a growing number of calls to ban them.

A KOB 4 Investigates review of use-of-force policies across New Mexico reveals a patchwork system among law enforcement agencies, with many agencies failing to address the controversial maneuvers specifically. 

LAS CRUCES NECKHOLD DEATH

In February, a traffic stop and a foot-chase led to a deadly encounter with a Las Cruces police officer. 

“I’m gonna (expletive) choke you out,” said former officer Christopher Smelser in body camera footage of the incident. 

The encounter led to the death of Antonio Valenzuela and former officer Smelser faces a second-degree murder charge. 

“We’re seeking to stop and end the violence against citizens by bad  cops… this is a bad cop,” said attorney Sam Bregman who represents Valenzuela’s family.

Police records reveal the officer used a “lateral vascular neck restraint” – which is a variation of a neck hold. 

At the time of the incident, the Las Cruces Police Department’s use-of-force policy did not mention the neck restraint maneuver and whether it was allowed or not. 

Research conducted by the 4 Investigates team found that is not uncommon among law enforcement agencies. 

A PATCHWORK OF POLICIES 

The 4 Investigates team surveyed more than two dozen law enforcement agencies across New Mexico, reviewing written policies, specifically when it comes to chokeholds and other types of neck restraints. 

Some agencies, including Albuquerque Police, Santa Fe Police and the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office all maintain written policies that effectively ban officers from using chokeholds or neck holds, unless the officer’s life is threatened. 

Other agencies, including Rio Rancho Police and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office have no specific mention of the controversial practice in their written use-of-force policies. 

Many agencies in New Mexico sent their officers to train through the New Mexico Department of Public Safety’s law enforcement academy. Officers are not trained to use chokeholds or other neck restraints, but they are taught defensive tactics. 

Still, New Mexico State Police do not have a written policy banning the controversial tactics. 

However, some agencies are embracing reform and are revising their policies to ban both chokeholds and neck holds. One such agency is the Catron County Sheriff’s Office in western New Mexico. 

“I've given a verbal directive that in use of force situations we will avoid chokeholds or neck-holds,” said Catron County Sheriff Ian Fletcher, adding that his office is in the middle of a weeks-long process to adopt a new policy. 

Sheriff Fletcher: “I’m just trying to find something that our legal team is comfortable with and something I'm comfortable with morally and ethically.”

4 Investigator Nathan O’Neal: In your view is there ever an appropriate time to use some sort of neck restraint? 

Sheriff Fletcher: “The only time I think that could be appropriate ... for me, I look at that as being a lethal force type option.”

NATIONWIDE CALLS FOR CHANGE 

After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and weeks of protest across the country demanding police reform, President Trump signed an executive order restricting the distribution of federal funds to law enforcement agencies that fail to ban chokeholds, unless an officer’s life is at risk. 

The order defines a chokehold as a tactic that restrict the airway. However, there are many other types of neck holds that are not covered by the executive order. 

“A chokehold restricts breathing and a carotid hold restricts blood flow to the brain. They both either render an individual unconscious or dead, so it is a clear use of excessive force,” said Rep. Gail Chasey, who chairs New Mexico’s House Judiciary Committee. 

“I think the only way to ensure that we're going to prohibit this kind of excessive use of force uniformly in the state is to do it at the state level,” said Rep. Chasey. 

While efforts to address chokeholds stalled during the special session this summer, Rep. Chasey is hopeful lawmakers will act soon. 

4 Investigator Nathan O’Neal: A lot of these sheriff’s departments seem to think that well we don't teach our guys to use this so that's good enough right? Do you think that's good enough?

Rep. Chasey: “No I don't absolutely not... it has to be specifically prohibited in some form.” 

As protests for police reform continue, Rep. Chasey hopes to pave the way for effective policy. 

“I really think our entire system of justice is at stake. If we cannot ensure equal treatment under the law for every single person who encounters a law enforcement officer, we’re not going to make everyone feel safe,” said Rep. Chasey. 


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