King County Sheriff: How the iPhone has revolutionized policing

John Urquhart riffs on blood chokes and MRAPs and says elected officials should push back on law enforcement policies more frequently.
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Sheriff John Urquhart

John Urquhart riffs on blood chokes and MRAPs and says elected officials should push back on law enforcement policies more frequently.

King County Sheriff John Urquhart believes that cops don't need mine-proof vehicles, that cellphone cameras have improved police behavior and that elected officials should be more willing to "man up" and challenge unpopular law enforcement policies.

Those were some of the thoughts Urquhart shared during a freewheeling interview last week at his office, which delved into some of the thorny topics involved in an unfolding national debate about the role of local police agencies and how heavily they should be armed. In Urquhart's view, community preferences should guide the equipment police use and the policies they follow.

Therein, he said, lies his reason for deciding abruptly earlier this month to ban Sheriff's Office deputies from using a controversial lateral vascular neck restraint, or "blood choke," unless they are faced with deadly-force. The technique has been criticized by groups such as the NAACP.

According to Urquhart, 16 patrol officers that he handpicked were trained to use the restraint, commonly called an LVNR for short, which involves restricting the blood flow to a person's brain. "LVNR is a good technique," he said, adding that it is used by 35 law enforcement agencies in Washington. But he adds: "The public's not ready for it."

"I firmly believe that anything we do, if we can't convince the public that's a good technique to use, we shouldn't be doing it," he continued. That approach to determining Sheriff's Office policy, Urquhart points out, can involve trade-offs.

"When the public rises up and says no more SWAT teams, we won't have any more SWAT teams," he said. "What that will mean is that the public and our officers are going to get killed more."

He sees similar downsides to discontinuing the use of the neck-restraint.

"LVNR would only be used if you're rolling around on the ground with somebody and he's fighting, actively fighting you, that's what was in our policy," the sheriff said. "Well now we've got to use a night stick, or we've got to slug him, or we've got to use a Taser." He concluded: "It's not going to be better."

Will Urquhart consider allowing the neck restraint again in non-deadly situations?

"Are you kidding? It's a loser," he shot back when asked that. "I can live without it."

Another thing the sheriff can live without are mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs. As of early August, 17 local law enforcement agencies in Washington had obtained the armored vehicles through a U.S. Defense of Department program that funnels surplus military gear to police departments, typically for no more than the cost of shipping.

"There are lots of tools we should not have. There's no question about it. And MRAKs, or whatever those giant machines are, are part of that," he said. "We don't need that. We do need an armored car. And we've got one, two, but they're no MRAK."

The armored cars Urquhart referred to, a Lenco Bear and BearCat, are commonly used SWAT team vehicles, which are somewhat less heavy-duty than an MRAP. Urquhart stressed that his office tries to use the vehicles sparingly and also said that he often has disagreements with SWAT officers about whether the team should be deployed.

"Usually," he said. "They win because they've got pretty good arguments."

The piece of equipment that Urquhart believes has most revolutionized policing in recent years is not a 15-ton armored truck, a high-powered rifle or any other piece of surplus military gear. In fact, it might be in your pocket right now.

"The most revolutionary change to policing is this," the sheriff said, holding up his cellphone. "All the stuff we used to do and get away with, is now on the six o'clock news because someone's got their iPhone up there. That's changed how we do business, as well it should. The way we used to do things, the public is not happy with. It's icky, they don't like it and it's forced us to change. It's forced us to deal with people in a different, and better way."

"All that stuff is really, really, really good," he said, adding that he backs an emerging emphasis in policing circles to transition cops from a soldier-like "warrior" role, toward one that is more guardian-like and focused on community engagement and stewardship.

Urquhart sees another factor in play right now as well when it comes to police practices. 

"We need to get to a place in this country where," he pauses for several seconds then continues, "the elected representatives have a set. I don't know how to phrase that better. Because they defer to their police chiefs way too much."

What exactly does he mean by that?

"If I drew a line in the sand and said 'Screw you, we're going to keep doing LVNR,' the County Council, for example, because of the pushback they got from their community, should then get together and outlaw it in King County... I would have no problem with that."

He then asked: "Do you think that's ever going to happen? Do you ever see a mayor, or a city council go against their police chief? Not very often. It just doesn't happen. It should happen more. That's how this system should work."

While Urquhart, who is elected, said that he tries to listen to his constituents and the Council, he cautioned that the next sheriff might not be as inclined to do so. And even that being said, he conceded: "I don't have all the answers."


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