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Sarasota Police Department abandons neck restraint policy

Chris Anderson
chris.anderson@heraldtribune.com
Winter Haven News Chief

On May 7, an incident involving former insurance executive Craig Johnson and his 22-year-old son, Nathan, took place at a Sarasota restaurant that included an arrest maneuver most agencies in the state are loath to use.

Craig Johnson, former president and CEO of FCCI Insurance Group, allegedly pushed a Sarasota police officer as he was being escorted from the property after refusing to leave. He was taken to the ground and handcuffed.

Nathan Johnson, meanwhile, stepped in and reportedly punched an officer twice and was taken to the ground with “minimal force,” according to the police report. While on the ground, the report states two officers were on top of his back and he continued to resist, attempting to strike an officer with a closed fist.

An unidentified officer then administered what is known as “vascular neck restraint” or VNR, a tactic that restricts blood flow to the brain and causes the subject to become unconscious. If done incorrectly, brain damage can occur. Few agencies in Florida teach or practice the technique.

The report said that Nathan Johnson was rendered unconscious by the officer, who immediately rolled Johnson on his side and administered a sternum rub. Johnson regained consciousness 10 seconds later. EMS arrived on the scene, medically cleared him, and he was taken to Sarasota County jail, reports stated.

On May 27 Sarasota police Chief Bernadette DiPino issued a memo that immediately prohibited the use of VNR by officers. The policy had been in place since 2009.

“Chief DiPino felt it was vital to review this level of force and pulling the VNR use at this time was necessary and a review of the practice and policies was timely,” spokeswoman Genevieve Judge said in a statement. “While the incident in Minneapolis was not an officer from the Sarasota Police Department, Chief DiPino said reviewing incidents like this and recommitting ourselves to being better, doing what is right and being proud of our actions is important and valuable.”

Unlike in the death of George Floyd — where an officer’s knee pressed down on his neck and killed him — VNR is an empty-handed control technique that compresses the carotid arteries and jugular veins, according to SPD’s Standard of Procedure guidelines. “Used properly, this technique results in a decreased blood supply to the brain, which leads to altered levels of consciousness, allowing an officer to gain compliance of the subject,” it says.

DiPino has stated that the knee-on-neck tactic used in Floyd’s death on May 25 has not been “taught, used or advocated’’ by her department. The knee maneuver is different from the VNR tactic.

Only SPD officers trained in its application were authorized to use the technique, and Judge said Thursday that the officer involved in the Nathan Johnson arrest had properly completed the training requirements.

According to the former SPD guidelines, VNR was to be used if a subject was resisting arrest, had the ability to harm an officer and use of a lesser force was unlikely to achieve safe control of the subject.

If the subject did lose consciousness, officers were to immediately discontinue compression but maintain control of the subject, place handcuffs on the subject and put them in a side-laying recovery position, monitoring them until consciousness is regained.

EMS was to be called if the subject exhibited “weak or no vital signs,” did not regain consciousness within 30 seconds after application or did not return to their previous state of consciousness or awareness in a “reasonable” amount of time.

Craig Johnson was charged with battering officers, resisting arrest and trespassing in the May 7 incident. Nathan Johnson was charged with trespassing, battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest without violence.

Derek Byrd represents both clients. He said Craig Johnson was traumatized by seeing his son unconscious for at least 10 seconds before he came to.

“He (Craig Johnson) was helpless, and to see his son go unconscious, you don’t know as a civilian if that is appropriate or inappropriate use of force,” Byrd said. “All you know is he is unconscious for 10 seconds and that’s a tough thing to go through as a parent.

“A motionless body is a scary thing to look at.”

Walt Zalisko, a police officer and chief in New Jersey for 40 years and now a private investigator in Southwest Florida, said there is a reason few departments use VNR.

“It could be perceived as use of deadly force,” Zalisko said. “I’m surprised they had that policy in place.”

This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.