The importance of proper law enforcement handcuffing for officer safety remains a timely topic. Shortly before writing this, I viewed the in-car dashcam footage of a suspect allowed in the backseat of a patrol car with his hands in front of him. The camera caught him drawing and fumbling with a handgun the officers had missed in their search. One of the two officers up front sensed something wrong, sprang out the door and contained the situation when he drew his pistol and leveled it on the suspect. Yes, what I’ll call Case One could have turned out a whole lot worse, perhaps leaving two dead officers slumped in the front seat of the patrol car.
This time, though, we’ll talk about liability issues relating to handcuffing. That’s because some officers have become so fearful over the years about “excessive force” and “police brutality” complaints that they don’t properly handcuff their arrestees. It’s also because some, through carelessness or through anger, do handcuff improperly and actually cause unnecessary injuries. No professional law enforcement officer wants that.
Law Enforcement Handcuffing: Learning Restraint
Many years ago I debriefed the state trooper who, in Case Two, was arresting a prison escapee. The man complained that the handcuffs were too tight. The compassionate trooper unlocked the handcuffs to adjust them and was instantly and violently attacked by the suspect, who broke free. He gained control of the arresting officer’s .357. Before it was over, that good lawman had been shot in the arm with his own gun and crippled for life, and another trooper had to finally shoot and neutralize the would-be cop-killer.
It is certainly possible for too-tight cuffs to cause nerve damage and create permanent injury by cutting off circulation if left in place long enough. Each such allegation is weighed in court on its merits and, as the law and the Supreme Court’s long-standing Graham v. Connor standard require, “within the totality of the circumstances.” For Case Three, we’ll look at part of the ruling in April 2007’s Freeman v. Gore: “Arrestee’s excessive force claim, based on an allegation that her handcuffs were applied too tightly, was not meritorious when her only injury was bruises on her wrists and arms. Leaving her in a patrol car for 30 to 45 minutes with tight handcuffs is not excessive force.”