Handcuffing a suspect is no easy task. Always keep an eye on suspects during an arrest, and if possible, provide backup in case the suspect tries to resist or becomes violent. Steve Woods photo

When you went through the Academy, streetwise instructors taught you that handcuffs are both temporary restraints, and imperfect ones. It is a lesson that has been written in the blood of police officers.

In Case One, detectives handcuffed a murder suspect with his hands in front. He seemed cooperative as he sat in the back of their vehicle as they drove him to the murder scene. But he was able to reach over the un-caged seat of their unmarked unit and grab one of their 9mm pistols. In moments, both detectives were dead or dying. Before the escapee’s rampage was over, he would murder a State Trooper and take a hostage, finally committing suicide with one of the detective’s guns when a SWAT team invaded the place he’d chosen for his last stand. The memories of three dead lawmen scream the warning: Don’t cuff in front without additional restraints, and furthermore, maintain constant visual supervision!

Some lessons are learned without bloodshed. In Case Two, one patrolman backed up another for the arrest of two burglars in a car full of swag. The backup officer had just finished searching one suspect and cuffing his hands behind him when he realized the brother officer needed help with the other suspect. Ordering his own arrestee not to move, he helped get the other under control and cuffed. He then heard a footstep behind him. Spinning to face the first cuffed suspect, he saw the tall, slender man had stepped one foot through the handcuffs. The cop had turned in time to see the other foot step through, now leaving both hands in front of the suspect.

The officer drew his baton from its metal ring with a distinctive sound—and the suspect, his eyes now wide enough to show white all the way around, stepped back through his handcuffs until they were behind him again. The officer returned his baton to the ring and used a Flex-Cuff to secure the chain of the suspect’s cuffs to the back of the man’s belt. Transport and booking occurred without further incident.

The lesson? There’s nothing wrong with augmenting the restraints beyond handcuffs. Also, cuffing the suspect “back of hand to back of hand” limits their “step-through” capability, as does the use of hinged handcuffs.

If a perpetrator breaks free during an arrest, he can easily turn partially applied handcuffs into a sharp and deadly weapon.

Thorough Searches
In Case Three recently on the East Coast, it was discovered that a prisoner had made it into a detention facility with an old .38 Special revolver completely concealed in his rectum. Fortunately, it was discovered before he could do any harm.
At least two suspects have been known to make it into handcuffed police custody with loaded, full-sized 1911 .45s concealed on their person, which had gone undetected by those who had arrested, cuffed and transported them. In Case Four on the West Coast, an interview room camera captured the last moments of the perpetrator as, left alone, he drew the .45, put it to his head, and fired a bullet through his own brain. The outcome could have been even worse.

Some 3,000 miles away, in an East Coast metropolis, two officers took transport custody of a suspect who had been arrested by another team of policemen. The first team had searched him, found a gun and secured it—and stopped the search at that point. Unfortunately, the man had another gun, a .45 hidden in his waistband behind his back, easily accessible to his rear-cuffed hands. It became Case Five for this learning point when the suspect drew the gun, twisted himself around, and opened fire through the front seat, shooting both of the transporting officers in the back. As the cruiser screeched to a halt, one of the cops was able to bail from the car despite his wounds and return fire on the
gunman in the backseat. The suspect was neutralized, but that was cold comfort after he had shot two police officers.

Case Six occurred in the same city as Case Five. Again, it was a hand-off of a suspect who had been arrested and cuffed behind the back by two officers, to another pair of patrolmen who were to perform the transport. With the second team was a police-trained reporter doing a ride-along for a magazine article. He told the second team that he felt uncomfortable being in the backseat with a man he hadn’t seen searched, so the second two officers searched the suspect again. They found a folding stiletto in his pocket, accessible to his cuffed hands. The lesson: Don’t take anyone else’s word—even a brother officer’s—that the suspect is devoid of weapons. Search him again yourself before taking custody and performing transport.

Ready to be double-locked, these Safariland hinged handcuffs, along with placing the suspect’s hands back to back, limit his range of movement and greatly reduce chances he’ll step through them.

Handcuffs as Weapons
If the cuffed hands make their way to the front of the perpetrator’s body, he can use them as a crushingly powerful strangulating chain. Even if the cuffs are behind his back, if they are the chain style instead of hinged, he can twist them to crush the fingers of a police officer trying to restrain him by holding the cuff chain. And, if he breaks free during the handcuffing process with one hand and uses the other to swing the open handcuff bracelet, he is armed with a weapon that can do some serious damage if officers are caught off guard. The open cuff is sharp, strong, and has saw-teeth on the outside to boot.

In Case Seven, an EDP (emotionally disturbed person) broke free from the deputy sheriff handcuffing him, with the loose cuff swinging free and open. Two city cops arrived as backup. When both TASER and baton failed, they “swarmed” the suspect by hand, and when he swung the open handcuff a fraction of an inch from one officer’s eye, the city cop punched him unconscious. The result was a skull fracture and a criminal charge of aggravated assault against the officer. The prosecution brought in an expert witness from thousands of miles away who testified that a swinging handcuff was not a deadly weapon—instead, he purported that a closed-fist punch to the head of the suspect was deadly force. The police defense team’s expert and the department’s own trainers were able to graphically demonstrate the truth, however, and the jury acquitted the officer, who returned to duty.

Having been the officer with the baton in Case Two, the writer in the backseat of the patrol car in Case Six, and the expert witness for the police defense in Case Seven, I offer these seven cases in the spirit of the philosopher George Santayana, who famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

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