Handcuffing: The Lost Art?

5 steps to safer cuffing

By Dave Grossi  |   Nov 12, 2014

When you really think about it and analyze it from a control standpoint, handcuffs are the one force tool we probably use more than any other. I’d estimate that almost 100% of arrestees are handcuffed when taken into custody. And they should be. One of the biggest mistakes cops make is not cuffing every arrestee properly (i.e., behind the back). It’s also the one force tool that we train with the least.

Very few agencies require retraining or refresher courses in handcuffing skills. I’d venture to say that a quick survey of officers around the country would reveal that most never get a handcuffing “in-service” after the academy. Yet, it’s been reported that almost 70% of suspects resist arrest after the first handcuff is applied.  

Noted Illinois-based police trainer Joe Truncale found there were many reasons for this lack of recurring training. At the top of his list? Administrators who believe that once officers get handcuff training in the academy, they don’t need to be retrained in it. Second was officers themselves who buy into that mistaken belief. Closing out Joe’s list was “it’s painful,” a lack of “qualified instructors” and “no standardization cuffing procedures, or a lack of texts or training media.”

While this short piece should not be construed as correcting that last item, here are a few tips that might serve as motivation for departments, trainers and officers to consider and hopefully correct what a lot of trainers view as a very important but overlooked issue.

1. Handcuffs are temporary restraints. Suspects are never really under control until they’re safely secured in a holding cell. Any suspect, given enough time, strength or an abundance of pain meds can get out of most handcuffs. Police training media are replete with suspects using seat belts, paper clips, and ball point pen refills to compromise handcuffs. While hinged cuffs are, for the most part, stronger and larger, and do not rotate like chain link cuffs, they can be defeated with the same items mentioned above. 

2. Cuff in back. My buddy, retired San Diego police sergeant Steve Albrecht has a saying: “If you’re going to sit in the back of my police car, you’re going to wear handcuffs, and you’re going to wear them the way God intended you to—with your hands behind your back.” You’d be surprised how many agencies still don’t teach their officers in the academy to cuff behind the back. If they do mention it, they leave up to the FTO to explain the “whys.”

I realize there are exceptions to every rule, but, for the most part, cuffing behind the back is safer. Keep in mind there are ways to accomplish rear cuffing in unusual situations: using two sets of cuffs hooked together, combining cuffs with hobbles or interweaving the cuffs through the belt or belt loops.    

3. Double-locking. I know there are times when double-locking the cuffs is the last thing on your mind. Been there. In the heat of an all-out battle for control, priority No. 1 is going to be “just get the damn cuffs on.” But as soon as possible, double-lock them. It’s going to accomplish two things, one tactical the other legal. It will prevent a skilled subject from pulling off the old “slip a shim in the ratchets” trick, and it will also keep the cuffs from tightening up, thereby thwarting the suspect’s claim of nerve/wrist damage.

4. Keep them on. I know this sounds elementary but it has happened more often that most cops probably realize. “The cuffs are too tight!” “I have a bum shoulder!” “I’m the Chief’s cousin!” Chuck Remsberg documents a couple incidents in his classic book The Tactical Edge where officers have been physically assaulted and even shot by offenders who begged to have the cuffs taken off for an assortment of reasons. Don’t do it until the suspect has been searched again and is safely in the lockup.

5. Taking off the cuffs. Probably the second most dangerous period of the arrest process is the removal of the handcuffs. One of my old FTO’s bears a facial scar inflicted by a middle-aged female shoplifter who swung a removed cuff around during the uncuffing procedure. If Mr. Badguy (or Mrs. Badgal) has been stewing during the ride to the Graybar Hotel, he (or she) may have made a conscious decision to vent his (or her) anger and frustration as soon as his (or her) hands get free. I hope you get the point of all my parenthetical pronouns. The sex of the arrestee is irrelevant when it comes to where the cuffs are placed. And it bears repeating on when to take them off; and that’s when your arrestee is safely secured in the lockup.

Conclusion

On television and in the movies it’s like the cuffs apply themselves. Not so in real life. If you haven’t lately, practice this essential skill. It’s one of those basic skills that seems a lot easier than it in actuality is—especially with a little subject resistance—but with practice you will quickly improve. Given how essential this practice is to our profession, you owe it to yourself to be better than just passable at slapping on the handcuffs.

Author’s Note: A special thanks goes out to my friend and fellow handcuffing trainer, Joe Truncale, whose thesis “Handcuffing and Officer Survival” was the inspiration for this article.

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Dave Grossi
Dave Grossi is a retired police lieutenant from upstate NY now residing in southwest FL. He was the Lead Instructor for the Calibre Press, Inc. Street Survival Seminars from 1988 through 2000.