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Departments : Officer Survival

Caution: Handle All Subjects with Care

Potentially deadly encounters can be avoided by paying attention to officer safety guidelines.

November 01, 1996  |  by Gerald W. Garner

A deputy sheriff arrested an adult male at a bar on a failure to appear charge. The officer put the subject in the backseat of the police car and got in the driver's side. The 57-year-old prisoner produced a .22-­caliber, single-shot handgun and killed the deputy with a bullet to the head. The sub­ject then reloaded and killed himself.

A state trooper was killed by a drunken driving suspect following a car accident. Arriving first, another officer placed the unsecured male subject in the front seat of his police cm: Later; while the trooper was questioning the subject outside the car; the man pulled a handgun and shot the officer in the head.

As a survival-smart officer you already know that prison­ers can be dangerous. You are very much aware that every year American peace officers are murdered after taking offenders into custody. They are killed on the street, in their vehicles and even within the walls of their stations or jails. They are killed by ambushers, friends of prison­ers and, most often, by the prisoners themselves. They are killed with handguns, knives and personal weapons, like hands and feet. Perhaps most tragically, none of these officers had to die.

Attention to some basic officer survival skills aimed at the safe handling of prison­ers can help keep you from adding your name to the bloody statistics. The first step you should take in shielding yourself from the dangers involves identifying what can go sour.

What Can Go Wrong?

A lot of things, actually. Many of them can have disastrous consequences for you. There is always the possibility that some­one will interfere with you and/or your prisoner. Most often, a friend or accom­plice of the subject will launch a surprise attack on you in an attempt to free your prisoner. But assaults are also common in domestic abuse incidents where the victim will assault you after you have "rescued" her from her tormentor. On rare occasions, the attack could even come from someone trying to strike a last blow at his opponent, who is now your prisoner. You just hap­pen to be in the way.

Most hazards to your health, however, are concentrated in the prisoner himself (or herself). A prisoner could break your control hold before he is secured and assault you. If cuffed improperly, he could escape the handcuffs and use the restraints against you. You could lose your handgun or other weapon to an escaping prisoner. You could also lose your life if you fail to get the weapon back under your control immediately.

A prisoner may jump you with a weapon at any stage of the transport or handling process if you have conducted an inadequate search of his person or accompanying belongings. You also could be assaulted by one or more in-cus­tody perpetrators inside the police station or holding facility if you lower your guard for even a moment. It doesn't take long to become a statistic.

Keys to Survival

Fortunately, there is effective action you can take to keep things from going ter­minally wrong while you are dealing with prisoners of all ages, genders, sizes and proclivities for preventing violence against peace officers.

  • Never underestimate the risk­ - Any prisoner could prove dangerous to you. You can't afford to assume that anyone you take into custody is guaran­teed harmless. The drunk you have picked up without incident on five pre­vious occasions may go homicidal on you this time. The runaway juvenile may be determined enough not to return home that he's willing to take your life. While you're only aware that you have a barroom brawler in your backseat, he knows that he's wanted under another name in another state for a capital crime. He's willing to kill you to retain his freedom-if you give him the opportunity. Don't do it.
  • Stay Alert - It is worth saying again: You cannot afford to relax for even a second while in the presence of prisoners. A temporary lapse could give a murderous opportunist the opening he is seeking to attack and escape. By remaining constantly aware of any new threat to your safety, you can keep the willing prisoner from feeling he is able to assault you. Be sensitive to any changes in your environment.
  • Keep others at a distance -­ It is important that you keep the relatives, friends and companions of your subject out of his arm's reach once he is in your custody. If, in spite of your efforts, someone does come into close contact with your prisoner, be certain he is searched thoroughly right away, just in case. You do not need a transport or jailhouse surprise from your previ­ously "clean" prisoner.
  • Guard weapons carefully -­ Officers are often killed with their own side-arms while engaged in prisoner handling tasks. To avoid such circum­stances, you must consistently follow exceptional weapon retention prac­tices. Keep all of your tools, including aerosol defense sprays, impact weapons and flashlights, well beyond the reach of prisoners and other civil­ians around you. Be conscious of your side-arm's location in relation to other people at all times. Keep it secured in a snug holster. When you must be armed in the presence of prisoners, be sure your gun side is kept turned away from them. When you are working with prisoners in a "secure" facility, be certain that not only your own firearm, but those of other officers in the area are also properly locked up.

Under the supervision of a compe­tent trainer, practice your weapon reten­tion and take-away skills using "dud" weapons. Learn what to do and how to do it in advance of a life-and-death bat­tle over control of your gun. Don't worry about how uncomfortable you must make a combative subject in the process. He'll recover from kicks to the shins or a poke in the eye. You won't be as likely to recover from what he'll do to you if he gets your gun.

  • Watch your positioning-Much of what you do as part of your usual offi­cer safety procedures involves keeping suspects at a distance. Naturally, you can't do that when you move in to take someone into custody. Offset the increased danger factor by approaching cautiously and keeping the subject off ­balance and at a disadvantage during the entire arrest process. Stay to your subject's rear during cuffing and search­ing and see to it that uninvolved others keep their distance. Whenever possible, work under the watchful eye of an alert backup officer.
  • Give clear verbal orders-­Your suspect should have no doubt in his mind about what he's supposed to do during the custody process. Be ready to take self-protection measures instantly if your instructions are disregarded or a threat to your safety develops. Remain aware of the nearest solid cover in the event a gun appears during your approach. Once you make physical con­tact with the suspect, be ready to jerk him to the ground if an attack develops. Stay keenly alert for what may happen next. Depending on the perceived threat level, "next" may require you to find cover while drawing your handgun, or stand ready with a defense spray or other non-lethal weapon.

If you perceive the danger from your arrestee to be sufficiently great that you must hold him at gunpoint, you should not begin the cuffing and searching pro­cedure until a backup officer can cover you. Then you can holster your weapon and move in to cuff and search while the backup handles the covering duties.

  • Handcuff properly - Handcuff first; search second. One grizzled patrol veteran said it best. "If they're worth arresting, they're worth cuffing. That means all of them." It's good advice.

Cuffing means cuffing properly, and cuffing properly means cuffing with the subject's hands behind his back, palms facing out, cuffs snug, but not too tight, and always double-locked. If feasible, the handcuffs should be secured to the arrestee's belt and behind him. They should be checked periodically during a lengthy transport assignment. Remember, however, that handcuffs are tem­porary restraining devices. They can be defeated by a particularly savvy or limber offender.

Handcuffing techniques cannot be learned by reading a book or watching a video tape. They can and must be learned and practiced under the guidance of a competent arrest and control instruc­tor. The following universal handcuffing guidelines should prove helpful:

1. Carry two sets of quality hand­cuffs; avoid cheap imitations.

2. Carry a "hideout" cuff key in addition to your regular key. You may need it one day.

3. Never handcuff yourself to a prisoner, and don't handcuff him to any part of the transport vehicle.

4. Approach and cuff your subject from the rear. Be sure he remains off ­balance during the handcuffing process.

5. Keep a tight grip on the handcuffs during the cuffing. A dangling cuff arm can be swung as a dangerous weapon.

6. Never slap the cuffs against a subject's wrist. Press the cuff arm firmly against one wrist at a time, allowing the handcuff arm to swing freely around the wrist and engage the metal teeth on the other side. Once the handcuffs have been double-locked, check to be sure they have latched properly and are snug, but not so tight they will impede circulation or cause nerve damage. Don't get lured into a trap, but do check if your arrestee claims his restraints are hUl1ing him. Watch for any discoloration in his hands or wrists that may indicate trou­ble. Also, watch for a sneak attack while you're in close.

  • Search the right way-Every subject who comes into your custody should be searched as many times as necessary until you are convinced that he is not in possession of anything harm­ful. There is no set number of times you should search an arrestee, but he must be searched at least at the point of initial custody, again before transport and once again before his restraints are removed at the processing point. Anything even potentially dangerous, such as lighters, ballpoint pens, belts and keys should be collected and secured beyond the prisoner's con­trol. Follow your agency's policies regarding the search of opposite sex prisoners and juve­niles. Adhere to legal and depart­mental guidelines on body or strip searches too.

Sound Advice

In addition, the following pointers on safe prisoner searches should prove helpful to you:

1. Don't accept anyone else's word that a prisoner being turned over to you is "clean." Search again. A safety-conscious peer will expect you to do so. A careless fellow officer may learn a valuable lesson.

2. Monitor your subject's attitude before you commence searching. If he is clearly threatening, you'll want to have ade­quate help on hand before you begin-just in case. The rein­forcements can be psychological deterrents to an attack.

3. Ask your prisoner before you search him if he has any blades, needles or anything else on him that might injure you during a search. He just may tell you. When you do search, wear puncture- and fluid-resistant gloves whenever possible. Pat and squeeze clothing rather than ram your fingers blindly into pockets. Take your time and search systematically and thoroughly, starting with the arrestee's head and working down to his footwear.

4. Try to have a backup officer cover you during any pris­oner search.

5. Give your subject clear orders as to what you expect and what you're going to do.

6. Keep your arrestee turned away from you during a search. Search from behind with the subject off-balance. As you search, first check one side of his body and then the other up to the midline, but do not reach so far that you lose your balance.

Like handcuffing, searching cannot be learned from a book or videotape. Practice your searching techniques with a partner under the tutelage of a skilled instructor.

  • Transport safely-It has been statistically proved that there is a great deal of potential danger involved in moving a prisoner from one place to another. The interior of the police vehicle can prove to be a dangerous place for a careless offi­cer. To deflect these dangers, remain alert to your surround­ings. Watch out for suspicious persons coming near. Watch your prisoner carefully for changes in his or her attitude, posture and apparent physical condition.

Before you put a prisoner into your vehicle, be sure you have carefully searched him for anything with which he could harm anyone, including himself. Remove and secure any such item. Check your vehicle's backseat area before he gets in. Make sure no surprises have been left behind by the previous occupant. Search it again after you have secured him at your destination. "Good" transport searches have missed some nasty items.

Prisoners belong behind a shield or screen, securely belted in with car doors and windows locked. Check the screening barrier to be sure that a prisoner who manages to slip cuffs off cannot reach through or around the barrier to get your weapon. Check him visually throughout the transport to ascer­tain that he's still secure.

Not surprisingly, transports of multiple prisoners increase the danger to you. Ideally, if you haul more than one in-custody individual at a time, you need a partner to help watch them. Depending on the danger quo­tient of your arrestee, two of you may be required to move a single prisoner. Don't take chances with your safety in a misplaced effort to save time or manpower.

  • Don't relax too soon-Law enforcement and corrections officers are sometimes killed within walls they thought were safe. A jail deputy was beaten to death with an oxygen cylinder in a jail infirmary. Two state troopers died after they were shot while removing a drunken driving suspect's restraints to give him a stationhouse breath test. The list goes on. Remember, the danger does not end for you at the station's doorstep. Indeed, your prisoner's adrenaline might be pumping harder than ever as he enters surroundings that he sees as threatening. Stay sharp and do not become a stationhouse casualty.

A Final Note

Prisoner handling does not have to be a high-risk activity. By applying some straightforward, common sense tactics, you can ensure that your prisoners are safely processed and secured.

Continue to learn and practice safe prisoner handling. Cri­tique yourself honestly after each experience and strive to do even better the next time. And do not forget the prime directive of prisoner handling: Never become complacent around any prisoner. The potential for danger is real.

Gerald W. Gamer is a lieutenant with the Lakewood (Colo.) Police Depart­ment. His book entitled. "High-Risk Patrol: Reducing the Danger to You," includes an examination of prisoner handling duties.

Tags: Officer Safety, Handcuffs, Handling Prisoners


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