With the knee-on-neck tactic under fire, Spokane law enforcement speak to needed changes in training

click to enlarge A Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission trainer shows a “ground control knee placement drill” where an officer would place their knee on the suspect’s shoulder and another on the ground to gain control.
A Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission trainer shows a “ground control knee placement drill” where an officer would place their knee on the suspect’s shoulder and another on the ground to gain control.

When George Floyd’s neck was pinned by (now former) officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis for nearly 9 minutes, killing Floyd, viewers around the world were outraged.

The specific pin maneuver has since come under fire, as communities around the country wrestle with how to respond to injustice and disproportionate use of force by police against black Americans and people of color.

Lt. Rich Gere, the master defensive tactics instructor for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, says he’s never seen such inappropriate use of that tactic in his time in law enforcement. 

Typically, officers are trained that if a subject is pulling away or fighting and a “high-risk” handcuffing technique needs to be used, they should place a knee on the shoulder to pin the person until they stop fighting and handcuffs can be placed on their wrists, Gere says. But it doesn’t seem that being “combative” was even the case with Floyd. 

“If a suspect is combative or the knee on the shoulder is not working, an officer may go to the neck, to get control, but once they get control, they don’t sit on the neck for 8, 9 minutes like they did with George Floyd,” Gere says. “I’ve never seen that in 20 years. That’s why it shocked the conscience of everybody, not just the public, but law enforcement as well.”

Following Floyd’s death, the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC), which operates the state training academy where all law enforcement officers get certified, issued an open letter to the community. 

“Specifically for high-risk cuffing, at one time they did teach one on the neck, one on the deck, but it got away from that."

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“We want the people we serve to know that we do NOT train officers to place their knee on a person’s neck either in the process of gaining control or while they are being restrained awaiting transport,” the letter states. “Effective immediately, our trainers will explicitly state in training that placing the knee on a subject’s neck and applying pressure is deadly and should never be done unless the situation clearly warrants the use of deadly force.”

With the official word from CJTC, Spokane-area law enforcement agencies say they’ll follow the new guidance. But whether that tactic should be used at all, even if just momentarily to subdue an aggressive suspect, has come up for debate in the police training world, with some saying it was never considered appropriate. 

KNEE ON THE NECK, KNEE ON THE DECK

Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says he was surprised to see CJTC’s letter claim that state trainers do not teach officers to pin suspects on their necks and never have. 

“CJTC states that they don’t train one on the neck, one on the deck,” Knezovich says. “It’s been taught that way for years. You’re not supposed to keep your knee on the neck. As soon as the handcuffs are on, you remove it. It’s even in their testing. For them to come out and say they don’t train that, that’s disingenuous.”

Spokane County Sheriff Training Director Tony Anderman confirms that at least at one point, the tactic was taught at CJTC, where he worked for 20 years before joining the Sheriff’s Office in 2016. He shares with the Inlander a copy of a midterm skill-testing scoring sheet from July 2014 labeled “Basic Law Enforcement Academy Force Training Curriculum.” 

On the second page, it states the class should warm up, then, “Given a practical closed skill test, the student will correctly demonstrate the above listed techniques.”

Under “High-risk cuffing, coercive prone,” the list of primary cuffing techniques that a grader would look for includes: “clear verbals, weapon control, scoop the arm, hug to chest, knee on neck/knee on deck, pat the waist, correct cuffing sequence, sufficient speed.”

Anderman draws attention to the “knee on neck/knee on deck” checkbox as evidence that he and others correctly remember the method was previously taught, even if training has shifted away from that in recent years.

“Specifically for high-risk cuffing, at one time they did teach one on the neck, one on the deck, but it got away from that,” says Gere, who has been teaching defensive tactics for 20 years.

But CJTC staff dispute that the technique has been taught anytime recently. 

Jerrell Wills, manager of the CJTC applied skills training division, has only been with the academy for about nine months, but says while he found some former cadets and trainers who were familiar with the technique, a defensive tactics trainer who’s been there for the last seven years says they haven’t taught “knee on the neck/knee on the deck” in all that time. 

Before joining CJTC, Wills was a police officer for 31 years on the west side of the state. He attended the academy in 1988, and says he has never been taught to put a knee on the neck.

“Certainly when you’re in a struggle, all sorts of things can happen, but it’s all about getting the person secured, and under control, but I have personally never been trained to put my knee on someone’s neck,” Wills says. “In my former capacity as a chief overseeing a training division … never was that a discussion or a component of the defensive tactics for arresting anyone, be it high risk or otherwise.”

Gere notes that in all cases, potentially deadly tactics and handcuffing techniques are taught to be responsive to the situation. Officers must take several things into consideration, Gere says, including: 

  • What is the alleged crime?
  • Is the person a potential threat?
  • Is the person actively trying to escape?

Similar to batons, which officers are taught to use on big muscle groups before more dangerous places like the head — rising to deadly force — Gere says instructors teach students not to move to the neck unless a situation is very dangerous. 

“Knee on the neck, knee on the deck like it’s written there, it can be used but it really should be used for more violent, potentially deadly force type situations, and not just as a standard high-risk cuffing,” Gere says. “If you can control somebody with less force, that’s the way to go.”

Regardless of what was taught in the past, CJTC will require explicit statements that a knee should never be applied on the neck unless the situation warrants the use of deadly force. Spokane County Sheriff’s training will follow suit, Gere says, and the Spokane Police Department similarly announced the tactic will now be considered a last-resort type tactic to only be used in potentially life-threatening situations. 


EFFECTIVE TRAINING

In addition to questioning knee-on-neck training, thousands in Spokane have recently asked regional law enforcement agencies not to allow Dave Grossman’s “Mindset Bootcamp,” training scheduled for this fall. They’ve called out the so-called “warrior-style” training as the opposite of what they want for police officers. Instead, some have suggested additional implicit-bias and de-escalation courses. While Spokane Police Department officers won’t be attending the training, Sheriff Knezovich supports Grossman’s training and says he plans to have Grossman offer a public Q&A event beforehand to answer community concerns. 

In the meantime, Anderman, the sheriff’s training director,  says there’s a larger conversation to be had about which training is effective, which isn’t, and how the public can ensure the changes they want in police training will result in better, less violent policing. 

“In the United States alone, we’re spending close to $500 million a year [for training],” Anderman says. 

The Basic Law Enforcement Academy in Washington includes 720 to 900 hours of training for new officers, and there are continuously new things added into that, he says. 

“But with all the money we invest there’s little to no research demonstrating behavior change or if that training is working,” Anderman says. "We plug in these special environments without knowing if they work."

For example, Anderman says, there's no evidence that use-of-force training or bias training works before it's added to the curriculum, and importantly, little to no follow-through research to figure out how those officers later behave in real-life situations. Anderman says funding that type of research could go a long way in helping figure out what's truly effective in reducing violent interactions (or other outcomes people want to examine) and additionally, could save taxpayer money in the long run. 

“We keep dumping money into training, but we don’t know if it’s working on the street,” Anderman says.

He says what opened his eyes to the issue was working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency while he was with CJTC. Anderman helped researchers develop a curriculum to train soldiers (and later, law enforcement) to be more effective at communicating in multicultural contexts, and they tested how that worked in the classroom.

“What are we doing with law enforcement?” Anderman asks. “Are we doing a good enough job with the funding we put into training to say, ‘Did that work?’”

Anderman and others in the Sheriff’s Office help run the internal department training academy in Spokane, which they hope to get certified to provide basic training. Their plan would be to incorporate some of that effectiveness training, but that takes money, he says. 

“We’re trying to locate funding in case we get our academy certified through the state,” he says, “so we can open our door to researchers to find what we’re doing right, and then nail us on what we’re doing wrong and really hold us accountable.” ♦

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...