The Lakewood Police Department was born at a time of civil unrest in 1970.
Civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guaranteed equal employment for all, limited the use of voter literacy tests and ensured public facilities were integrated, was only six years old.
And as the department celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, civil unrest still exists, stirred up by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25, while white Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck.
Floyd's death led to protests throughout the country, including in Lakewood, that highlighted racial inequalities and police brutality. His death was filmed and seen by millions of Americans.
In response, the Lakewood Police Department came to the conclusion to ban the use of carotid restraints holds on June 10 — nine days before Senate Bill 217 banned the maneuver after the bill was signed into law by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on June 19.
Carotid restraints involve an officer bending his or her arm around a resident's neck and applying pressure on either side of the windpipe to slow or stop blood from flowing to the brain.
“It was one of those things that we looked at when all of this came out. It was important for us as a police department to look at ourselves and to see if there were opportunities for change,” said John Romero, a spokesperson for the department. “Ultimately, we decided it was not something we needed to utilize. It's different at different departments, but for us, it was already considered a use of deadly force.”
Last August, 23-year-old Elijah McClain died from cardiac arrest after he was placed in a carotid control by an Aurora Police officer. On June 25, Gov. Jared Polis appointed Attorney General Phil Weiser as a special prosecutor to investigate McClain's death. Two days later, swarms of people calling for justice in the McClain case shut down Interstate 225 through Aurora.
Aurora and Denver police have recently banned the carotid maneuver.
Lakewood Police Commander Pat Heffner, who taught department officers how to use carotid restraints from 1992 to 2012, said Lakewood Police has only used the technique two times in the last 15 years.
The department trained officers to use the maneuver only in instances when they were fearful for their life. Heffner said Lakewood Police had a policy in place when carotid restraints were used that required the subject who the technique was used on to receive medical attention after.
“It’s always good for police departments to look at their practices and procedures to make sure they are aligned with acceptable practices and not consistently involved with officer involved killings. It’s always good to look at these techniques,” said Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado. “They might be because police officer involved killings are a little more prominent in the news, but I think it’s always good to look at (practices and procedures).”
A college degree and implicit bias training
In a 2015 report, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 1% of police departments required police officers to have a four-year degree. Lakewood Police is one of those departments.
“A four-year degree says a person is goal orientated, they start something and complete something. We think that education creates a higher standard,” said Heffner.
New Lakewood Police recruits undergo implicit bias training that make officers think about situations that can point out instances of an officer believing they were being fair when in reality, they were being bias, Heffner added.
“It makes us do soul searching in case we do have bias in place and to make sure our behavior doesn't discriminate against anyone in the community,” she said.
In the case of Floyd's death, Heffner said the department was sickened by the situation. She called Chauvin's actions criminal conduct and said the incident is far removed from what Lakewood Police teach its officers.
“I know personally, if an officer puts slight pressure on a person who was face down, I have intervened in the past and others have, too,” said Heffner. “We have good people in place and a good culture where officers aren't afraid to intervene. We have a culture in which when officers see something that bothers them in terms of excessive force, it's safe for them to say so.”
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