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Guest commentary: End of police neck restraints is a welcome but belated victory

Desiree Smith poses for a portrait on June 5 in San Diego.
(Semoria F. Mosley / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Guest commentary:

Desiree Smith is a Point Loma resident who is involved in Mothers of the Movement and is a member of the Racial Justice Coalition. This article was first published by The San Diego Union-Tribune as part of a group of essays by black San Diegans invited to write about police brutality, protests, racism in America or other issues they feel should be in the spotlight following the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of police and others.

On Oct. 31, 2014, my son EJ Smith was put in a chokehold that the San Diego Police Department refers to as a carotid restraint. This was not only a horrible and life-changing experience for him, but it has also continued to have an impact on my entire family. The decision from elected officials and law enforcement leadership to end all neck restraints is not only welcome news for me and my family, but it also comes six years too late.

When my 15-year-old son went to Lincoln High School on that Friday, he did not intend to be physically harmed or assaulted by law enforcement. It’s also true that he skipped class and engaged in foolish activities — all activities that might result in disciplinary actions from the school, but certainly not assault and arrest from San Diego police officers.

We still do not understand why law enforcement proceeded to interrogate my son about a missing cellphone. This should be a normal process and should not escalate into a violent exchange. The aggressive and brutal way my son was first handled during this situation then led to a physical struggle over a lighter. The police officer discovered a cellphone during his search of my son. The situation escalated based on this security guard deciding to use the carotid restraint on my son, and this horrific exchange can be seen on the cellphone video taken of the incident.

Even though my son was very blessed to survive this incident and he did not have extensive physical injuries, the lingering emotional scars and psychological damage are apparent today — long after the bruises around his neck healed. His inability to sleep and fragile mental state lingered for quite awhile. What are young black boys supposed to think about law enforcement and the larger school environment after this type of incident? Is this the best way to ensure a safe and enjoyable school
environment for every student?

These are critical questions to consider when placed in the context of the officer that used this chokehold never being disciplined and no clear policy on when and how chokeholds can be used at schools and with minors.

The May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest, has been at the forefront of renewed outcry, anger and debate over race relations in the United States, both in regard to police and society in general.

As a parent with children in the school district, I do expect for them to be safe and comfortable at school. I also expect to be properly notified about incidents that involve my children. This did not happen, and even after my son was arrested by the San Diego Police Department, I was not notified until he was already detained in juvenile hall.

This erodes the critical bond between schools and parents when this form of communication breaks down, and it is something that Lincoln High School has never addressed with me. This also resulted in him getting arrested a second time a year later because the San Diego Police Department did not have the right address and the right date of birth for him. This re-traumatized him and hurt my whole family again.

It is a momentous victory for me and my family to have all neck restraints banned now, and we pray that this ensures that no one else suffers from this barbaric and racist practice. This incident should have never happened and it is something my son and my family will have to live with for the rest of our lives.

We thank God for all of those who supported me and my family in the last six years, and we appreciate all of those members of the Racial Justice Coalition who have so bravely and consistently worked to end law enforcement neck restraints in San Diego.


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