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The moment a law officer applies the handcuffs is the moment of truth. Up to that point, the officer and the suspect may interact in a friendly manner. The suspect hopes his calm demeanor and gift of gab will earn him his freedom. But when the officer utters those four magic words, “You are under arrest,” and takes out the handcuffs, the suspect realizes that the negotiations have failed and he is going to jail.
It is the finality of the act, when the exchange involves physical touch for the first time, that handcuffing is an emotionally charged, highly dangerous aspect of an officer’s job. An officer can never anticipate each suspect’s reaction, but proactive steps can be taken to ensure officer safety. In a perfect world, a back-up officer would always be on the scene. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Usually, an officer must make the apprehension alone.
A patrol officer should carry at least two pairs of metal handcuffs. Two pairs will allow an officer to detain four suspects under desperate circumstances. Two pairs of cuffs will come in handy with a large suspect. An officer may also want to carry FlexiCuffs (also called PlastiCuffs). FlexiCuffs are pliable, weatherproof, easy to use and an excellent restraint method. FlexiCuffs can be used on wrists or ankles. FlexiCuffs can be stored inside a hat, in a rear or side pocket or even tucked vertically into socks or boots. If an officer plans to carry FlexiCuffs, he must also carry a pliers-like cutting tool to remove the FlexiCuffs. A knife should not be used to cut off these cuffs.
Handcuffs require miminal care but should not be totally neglected by an officer. Officers should be aware of the detrimental effect moisture will have on the metal handcuffs. Perspiration, precipitation or immersion in water or bodily fluids will definitely compromise the effectiveness of the handcuffs. A spray of lubricant to the key lock and rivet once every month or two should keep the handcuffs in good working order.
Placement of the handcuffs on the duty belt is a matter of personal preference. Many officers use a handcuff case staged on the support side of the duty belt, next to the magazine pouch. This traditional placement causes an officer to have to torque his body a quarter turn to the support side to retain the handcuffs. An experienced offender may seize this opportunity and attack the off-balance officer.
Some officers still stage their handcuffs in the small of their back. That means as they drive, there is constant pressure against the double strands; this may compromise the single strands ability to freely move through the double strand in an arrest situation. Accessing handcuffs staged in the small of the back is likely to put the officer in a position of tactical disadvantage.
The most accessible position for the handcuffs is on a leather strand hanging from the front of the duty belt. The officer can easily access the handcuffs with either hand with maintaining a strong position of balance. Handcuffs staged from a leather strap are likely to bounce and create noise; officers should be aware of this before entering a tactical scene where stealth is a necessity.
Handcuffs are best applied to suspects who are in a position of tactical disadvantage. On the street, this most likely means facing away, on the knees, ankles crossed, sitting back on the ankles, and hands behind the back. The arresting officer should give this verbal command from a distance of 4 to 6 feet. If the suspect complies, the officer can safely move in to apply the handcuffs.
If the suspect does not comply with this command, the officer’s perception of pending danger should heighten. The distance allows the officer a moment to decide the next course of action. These options include calling for immediate back-up, reissuing the verbal order, the use of physical force or the use of mechanical force. Many of these options are negated if the officer is within reach of the suspect.
All officers should be constantly reminded, “Cuff, then search.” There is no position of tactical advantage that is as good as handcuffing the suspect. Immediately upon handcuffing the suspect, the officer should begin as intrusive a search as the law allows.
The search should begin in the area most accessible to the offender’s hands—usually the small of the back. Officers should not hesitant to lift an outer jacket or shirt to allow a visual inspection of the area before feeling the area. They should be aware that experienced offenders have concealed handcuff keys along their beltlines, so officers must be extra vigilant when searching this area.
Once a search is complete, the officer should check the handcuffs to make sure they are not too tight. Some recommend that an officer should be able to slip a finger between the shackle and the wrist, otherwise the cuff is too tight. Handcuffs that are too tight can cause nerve injury.
If a handcuff is determined to be too tight, the officer should request back-up, place the suspect in a position of tactical disadvantage and reapply the cuffs in a manner that will not cause injury. Cuffs should be double-locked to prevent the cuffs from closing, again, which might cause injury.
Detective Joseph Petrocelli has been in law enforcement for 18 years and currently serves as the training coordinator for the Passaic County, NJ Sheriff’s Department. He is the co-author of “Anatomy of a Motor Vehicle Stop.” He can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in Law and Order, Aug 2006
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