The RCMP says it will keep instructing its officers to use the controversial carotid control technique in rare cases, despite direction from the federal government to ban the use of neck restraints in all circumstances.
The carotid control hold involves compressing the arteries on either side of a person's neck, causing the person being restrained to slip into unconsciousness.
When used correctly, the restraint doesn't restrict breathing, but its use has come in for heightened scrutiny in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody in 2020.
In his mandate letter to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki last year, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino asked her to prohibit "the use of neck restraints in any circumstance and the use of tear gas or rubber bullets for crowd control."
A spokesperson for the RCMP told CBC News Wednesday that the national police force has "not banned or placed a moratorium on the use of the carotid control technique."
Instead, Robin Percival said the RCMP issued new guidance to its officers late last year that "strengthens and clarifies definitions, oversight and accountability measures, the risks of applying the technique on medically high-risk groups, requirements for medical attention, the threshold for use and requirement to recertify annually on the policy regarding application."
Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Mendicino, said the minister gave Lucki "clear instructions."
"Our expectation is that the commissioner remains committed to implementing these reforms, that the RCMP strives to set the gold standard when it comes to use of force and that it advances the reforms necessary to maintain the confidence of all Canadians," he said.
"As we begin 2023, we are following up with the RCMP and all our portfolio agencies to receive updates on the many important items in their mandate letters."
The RCMP Act says the commissioner serves "under the direction of the minister" and "has the control and management of the force."
The RCMP has defended the carotid hold as safe, effective and rare. It said its policy limits the use of the technique to situations where an officer fears grievous bodily harm or death for themselves or others.
The force said the carotid control technique was used 25 times in 2020 and 14 times in 2021 by its members.
According to documents obtained through an access to information request last year, between 2017 and 2021 the RCMP recorded six occasions when someone had to be taken to hospital following the application of a carotid hold — three in 2018, one in 2019 and two in 2020.
Percival said the RCMP's new carotid restraint policy includes a section that says that if the subject isn't compliant after 20 seconds, the officer should end the restraint hold. Mounties are also now expected to request a medical health assessment as soon as possible following the application of the carotid control technique.
Recent study called bans 'counterproductive'
The RCMP pointed to a recent study it took part in that reviewed vascular neck restraints. The review, published last fall in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, examined its use by three police forces and found the technique to be effective in more than 90 per cent of cases.
The report found there were no fatalities or significant injuries related to vascular neck restraints after 944 field uses. The RCMP accounted for one-third of the cases used in the study.
The researchers also noted minor injuries were rare and included neck and shoulder soreness, sprains or strains, swelling, dizziness or headaches. The report found one case of hemotympanum, the presence of blood in the middle ear.
The study's authors wrote that calls to ban the hold may be "unnecessary when the vascular neck restraint technique is executed by well-trained law enforcement officers."
"Further, banning a safe and effective force option may be counterproductive, by forcing law enforcement officers to utilize other force options with higher risks of injury," said the study.
Carotid technique different from the hold used in Floyd's death
The RCMP first announced it would be reviewing the carotid restraint, sometimes known as a "sleeper hold" or "blood choke," in response to massive international protests against police brutality in the wake of Floyd's death.
The carotid hold differs from the technique used by Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes. In the wake of Floyd's death, some law enforcement agencies in the U.S. announced bans on the use of the carotid neck restraint.
The RCMP said that while it does not teach its officers to put a knee on a suspect's neck, or endorse them doing so, it does believe it's acceptable to use a knee in certain cases.
"There are instances in RCMP police defensive tactics training whereby it is appropriate for an officer to use their knee and place it on a citizen's upper body during an arrest," says an explainer on its website.
"However, there is specific training and instruction provided which directs officers not to use their knee on the suspect's neck."
Union happy restraint is sticking around
The head of a union representing more than 20,000 RCMP officers applauded Lucki's decision to keep the carotid hold.
"Our members are actually very good, like really good, at deescalating situations because 99.99 per cent of our interactions with the public result in no use of force," said Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation.
"In the heat of the moment, do we have accidental discharges of firearms? Yes. Do we have accidental discharges of conductive energy weapons? Yes. Can a carotid control technique go sideways and end up not being applied correctly? Yes. Again, you're talking about a scenario where you're dealing with someone on the realm of death or grievous bodily harm."
Sauvé said he thinks Lucki is acting within her authority in retaining the carotid hold as an option for officers.
"There's been a lot of talk last year, for example, about operational independence of the RCMP. Use of force, the Incident Management Intervention Model, in my opinion, would fall within that operational independence," Sauvé said, referring to the options police are taught to use in various scenarios.
"I think the science and the evidence, everything points to the fact that the carotid control technique is a valuable use-of-force option, [a] less lethal intervention option for our members."