Cuff before frisk; keep them off-balance; watch your own footwork.
By: BJ Bourg
Handcuffing suspects can pose a real danger to law enforcement officers, especially when officers are working alone. While even untrained suspects can injure officers, hardened criminals have been developing and practicing ways to avoid being handcuffed for countless years. It is imperative that officers understand the vulnerabilities associated with common handcuffing techniques so they can minimize their exposure to danger.
First Rule of Handcuffing
Due to the unpredictable nature of law enforcement work, officers must remain flexible and not adopt many “hard and fast” rules. However, in the spirit of officer safety, officers should handcuff all suspects before frisking them. Frisking requires officers to move in proximity to the suspect, bend over into unbalanced positions, and use their hands to feel for weapons. Officers could be injured or killed if a suspect decided to attack or produce a weapon while they were bent into unbalanced positions and preoccupied with a frisk.
In a “stop” and “frisk” situation, officers are not authorized to handcuff the subject they are stopping, but they can frisk the subject if they feel their safety is in jeopardy. Since a frisk can be, by its very nature, a dangerous task, officers are essentially placing themselves in harm’s way to ensure they are not harmed. Thus, if officers encounter a suspicious subject while they are operating alone and a frisk is justified, they may want to consider a safer alternative, such as maintaining a safe distance from the subject, asking him to keep his hands in view, and remaining vigilante as they conduct their field interview.
When officers position a suspect to be handcuffed, they focus primarily on the suspect’s legs and arms, because these personal weapons can inflict the most damage. Most standard handcuffing techniques call for officers to instruct the suspect to spread his legs, point his toes outward, and bend forward at the waist, with the intended purpose being to place the suspect off-balance.
While this position has been widely accepted over many years, it presents a number of safety issues for officers. Anytime a suspect lowers his center of gravity by spreading his legs, he actually solidifies his position and improves his balance. From this widened stance, he can easily attack approaching officers by 1) “pushing off” with one foot to launch kicks at them; 2) executing powerful spinning strikes such as back-fists and elbows; and 3) trapping their foot to the ground or hooking their leg and then taking them violently to the ground.
When the suspect bends at the waist, his hands are closer to the ground and he can easily drop forward and execute a scissors-sweep (a deadly technique that has been taught in prisons and martial arts manuals for many years) or a back kick on approaching officers. While some officers are taught to place a foot between the suspect’s legs and tap the inside of his ankles to make him “spread them,” this tactic should be discontinued, because it invites a scissors-sweep.
A variation of the “spread-legged” technique is to have the suspect lean against a wall or other solid object. While the goal is to keep the suspect under control and off-balance, officers are actually providing a springboard that can be used to facilitate his escape or attack. Two attempts to strengthen this position involve angling the suspect sharply against the wall, and placing him flat against the wall while controlling one of his arms.
However, officers must be aware that even if the suspect is angled sharply against the wall, he can easily drop, spin, and execute a scissors-sweep; and even if he is flat against the wall and officers have control over one of his arms, he can still take them to the ground by trapping or hooking their feet and shoving off of the wall with his other hand.
Two common techniques call for officers to position the suspect with his hands either out to his sides or behind his head with his fingers interlaced. When a suspect’s hands/arms are at shoulder height, it makes spinning attacks (elbow strikes, back-fists) easier to execute and more difficult to detect, because the arms are already positioned along the plane of attack and the suspect can initiate a surprise attack by simply pushing off with one foot and twisting at the waist.
Additionally, this hand positioning increases the time it takes to apply handcuffs, because officers will have to take control of each of the suspect’s hands and physically move them behind his back, exposing them to potential danger for a longer period of time.
Two extremely dangerous handcuffing positions are the kneeling and prone positions. In the kneeling position, the suspect is typically instructed to spread his knees and cross his ankles, which makes it easy for him to lean forward onto his hands and execute back kicks or scissors-sweeps. Additionally, he could quickly turn and grab one or both of the officer’s legs and execute a takedown.
Officers are further at risk in this position because they have to bend over and compromise their balance in order to apply the handcuffs. In the prone position, the suspect is typically positioned with his legs spread and his hands extended straight out to his sides, which makes it easy for him to push off of the ground and roll into officers or maneuver into a position from which to launch other types of attacks. Since the suspect’s outstretched hands and legs are already poised for the “push off,” officers will have no observable warning cues and this will make it difficult for them to defend against these types of attacks.
When officers approach a suspect they have positioned to be handcuffed, they are susceptible to attack because even a suspect with his back turned away or “proned out” can execute effective and accurate strikes and other attacks. If officers approach the suspect by crossing one foot in front of the other, they could be caught in mid-stride and knocked easily to the ground during an attack.
Many techniques require officers to approach a standing or kneeling suspect from the rear at a 45-degree angle, but this will increase their susceptibility to danger, because it is relatively easy to launch diagonal attacks to the rear. Another common technique is for officers to approach a suspect who is in the prone position from his left side (or right). They then place their left knee on the suspect’s left shoulder blade and their right knee on the ground beside his left shoulder.
While officers might appear to have control over the left shoulder/arm, they are actually in grave danger. With his right hand and legs, the suspect can suddenly push off of the ground and roll into the officer’s right leg (trapping it to the ground) and turn a common handcuffing technique into a ground fight for the officer’s life. Even if officers have control of the suspect’s left arm at the time of the “roll out,” he can easily “chicken-wing” his own arm to achieve the escape.
Additionally, some officers are taught to approach the suspect while holding their handcuffs “properly” in their hand. If the suspect suddenly produces a weapon or attacks them, they would have to utilize precious time to drop their cuffs before drawing their sidearm or defending the attack. When officers are trying to play “catch-up” during a gunfight or other self-defense situation, every millisecond counts, and the time it takes to drop a pair of handcuffs could cost them their lives.
Positioning the Suspect
Law enforcement officers will never be able to eliminate all risks associated with handcuffing. However, by applying their God-given common sense, they can make simple adjustments to existing techniques and greatly reduce their exposure to danger and increase their chances of getting home safely at the end of each shift. Two key points they must consider are how they position the suspect and how they approach the suspect.
When positioning a suspect to be handcuffed, officers should always seek to place the suspect in a position that compromises his balance, limits his mobility, and reduces his opportunity to launch an attack. An ideal position for handcuffing a standing suspect would be to have him stand upright with his feet together, head tilted back, and hands behind his back, with his thumbs pointed upward and the backs of his hands touching.
Positioning the suspect with his feet together will 1) greatly compromise his balance and place him at a tactical disadvantage; 2) make it difficult for him to push off with one foot to launch kicks; 3) make it difficult for him to spin around to execute hand/arm strikes or a scissors-sweep; and 4) enable officers to apply the handcuffs without positioning their own feet too close to the suspect’s feet, thereby reducing their risk of having a foot trapped or hooked.
If officers insist on utilizing the dangerous “spread-legged” handcuffing positions or the “wall” position, they can offer themselves some degree of protection by trapping the suspect’s foot to the ground, which is accomplished by stepping on the suspect’s foot (the one closest to their approach). This simple technique will limit the suspect’s mobility somewhat and prohibit him from trapping their own foot to the ground or tripping them. If the suspect attempts to resist arrest, officers can pull or push him off balance while keeping his foot trapped to the ground, and this will enable them to either take better control of the suspect or create distance.
Positioning the suspect with his head tilted back will help compromise his balance and prohibit him from getting a bearing on his surroundings. Typically, a suspect is instructed to tilt his head downward or turn it away from the officer’s approach. While these are generally acceptable, officers must be aware that the suspect could detect their shadow or reflection against objects in the area, see their feet on their final approach, search out escape routes, and/or locate weapons of opportunity.
Positioning the suspect with his hands behind his back will make it nearly impossible for him to launch effective hand / arm strikes without first telegraphing his intentions. In order to deliver an effective strike, the suspect would have to bring his arm to the front of his body, raise it, and then spin around. This will allow well-trained officers ample time to react appropriately. Additionally, this hand positioning will decrease the time it takes officers to handcuff the suspect, which will reduce their exposure to danger.
Officers must remain fully aware that it is extremely dangerous for them to handcuff a suspect in the kneeling or prone positions and they should avoid them at all cost. However, if they insist on utilizing these positions, there are ways to reduce their exposure to danger. For the kneeling position, officers can instruct the suspect to kneel upright with his knees together, ankles crossed, head tilted back, and hands behind his back. This will compromise the suspect’s balance and limit his attack options.
Additionally, should the suspect attempt to resist, officers can trap both of his legs to the ground by stepping on the foot that is crossed over the other. For the prone position, officers can instruct the suspect to lie face down with his legs together, ankles crossed, hands behind his back, and his forehead on the ground. This position will limit the suspect’s ability to maneuver on the ground and launch an attack. If the suspect decided to attack, he would have to first remove his hands from behind his back or uncross his legs and plant them on the ground, and this would telegraph his intentions.
When approaching a kneeling or standing suspect, officers should utilize proper footwork, keep their hands empty and up in a defensive position, and they should approach from the rear at a 90-degree angle. From this angle, it will be more difficult for a suspect to find or attack them and it will be easier for them to safely take control of him.
When they reach the suspect, officers should maintain a proper fighting stance while they take control of one of the suspect’s hands; preferably by squeezing the fingers of the suspect’s right hand with their left hand (reverse for left-handed officers). Only then should they retrieve their handcuffs and apply the first cuff. They should maintain a “death grip” on the handcuffs as they take control of the suspect’s left hand and apply the second cuff. With a kneeling suspect, it is crucial that officers lower their reach by squatting—not by bending over at the waist, because this will place them off-balance.
When approaching a suspect in the prone position, officers should approach from the top of his head, utilizing proper footwork. When they reach the suspect, they should place their left knee on the suspect’s right shoulder blade, while keeping their right leg bladed at a 45-degree angle and the bottom of their right foot planted firmly on the ground (reverse for left-handed officers).
With their feet positioned in this manner, the suspect will not be able to roll into them and they will be able to quickly return to their feet to create distance or respond appropriately to attacks by the suspect. After officers are positioned correctly, they can take control of the suspect’s left hand with their left hand and retrieve their handcuffs with their right hand. After cuffing the suspect’s left hand, they can take control of his right hand and cuff it next.
Due to the dangers associated with handcuffing suspects and the frequency with which they perform this task, it is vital that officers practice their handcuffing skills repeatedly to ensure they can perform the mechanics correctly and without effort, and they can use family members to help them hone this crucial skill. While the vast majority of suspects they encounter might be intoxicated or inept, officers must diligently prepare to defend themselves against that one motivated and skilled suspect who would rather kill them than spend another night in jail.
BJ Bourg is the chief investigator for the Lafourche Parish District Attorney’s Office. He has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and has served in various capacities, including patrol, investigations, training and special operations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.