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Departments : Officer Survival

Extracting Suspects from Commercial Aircraft Safely

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recommended that airlines take a "zero tolerance" stance regarding passenger misconduct.

January 01, 2000  |  by Jeff Martin and George T. Williams

Any family or friends of the suspect are asked to move to the front of the aircraft where they can be detained, for safety reasons, by the forward officer.

The contact officer should repeat to the suspect, in a professional, courteous tone of voice, loud enough for everyone on the aircraft to hear, that he or she is under arrest and is requested to accompany the officers.

If the suspect still fails to comply, after being issued repeated warnings that noncompliance will result in use of force, officers may apply the following strategy:

The contact officer will take a position to the rear of the seated subject.  The cover officer will move to the row forward of the subject, remaining in the aisle, ready to apply handcuffs.  The contact officer will then reach forward forcefully, taking hold of the suspect's head, immediately turning his forehead into the seat adjacent to the subject.  This pins the suspect's face into the back of the next seat, cushioning his or her face and preventing injury.  The officer not only uses his arm strength, but his entire body weight to secure the suspect in this position.

The contact officer's hands are positioned on the back of the suspect's head and the side of the suspect's jaw.  There should be no pressure on the suspect's neck.  Rather, the pressure is on the back of the suspect's head.  This prevents the suspect from fighting the officer.  The suspect's lower body may become trapped in the seat's arm rest.  This can aid in controlling the suspect's resistance.  If the suspect attempts to become combative or tenses up, preventing his arms from being moved to the rear for cuffing, then pain compliance can be used by the contact officer placing his or her fingers into the underside of the suspect's jaw.  The fingers are firmly directed upward into the attachments of the tongue.  This is very painful and not to be used unless the suspect's resistance warrants it.

The arresting officer then handcuffs the suspect.

If there is resistance, suspects usually demonstrate it by holding their hands under them in tensed flexion, or by blindly striking out at the arresting officer.  The arresting officer should loudly verbalize his or her intentions and instructions to the suspect throughout the enforcement action.

If the arresting officer is not successful in gaining control of the suspect's hands, other force options must be employed.  OC pepper spray or Mace are not appropriate due to the confined space.  Also, application of a carotid restraint is usually not warranted in these cases.  Instead, a quick knee strike or hand strike to the suspect's lateral mid-thigh is often useful as it is painful and temporarily disables the leg.  Remember to loudly warn the suspect that he may be struck if e doesn't stop resisting.  The exact wording and number of warnings should be noted in the arrest report.

Witness statements should be gathered from passengers and airline personnel, and a list of passengers should be obtained from the airline.  Witness statements can (and should) be tape recorded.  This will not only speed up the process, getting them on their way, but will fix their testimonies.

Once the suspect is handcuffed and compliant, he or she can be led off the aircraft and officers can allow the passengers to disembark as rapidly as possible.  If the suspect remains resistive, officers can hold him or her in place and allow the passengers to disembark before removing the suspect from the plane.  Once the passengers are off the aircraft, retrieve any carry-on items the suspect may have.

Thank the aircrew for their cooperation, and also ask them to thank the passengers for their patience.  Remember, there are often between 100 to 300 witnesses to the officers' actions in this situation.  They can be made to be either hostile or friendly, depending upon how the officers conduct themselves.


By maintaining control over the suspect, this difficult tactical problem is more easily and safely resolved.  The airline just wants to get the problem over with so they can meet their schedule.  The other passengers just want to de-plane and move on to their next order of business.  By following the outlined steps, officers can assist the airline and public by safely taking a disruptive and resisting suspect into custody.

Jeff Martin is a sergeant with the San Jose (Calif.) Police Depart.  An 18-year veteran of policing, he is responsible for developing training programs related to officer safety and liability reduction.

George T. Williams has been training police officers for 18 years.  He is director of training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, Wash.  For more information, call (360) 671-2007 or e-mail [email protected]

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