5 Reminders for Dealing with Wheelchairs

By Calibre Press  |   Feb 17, 2020

Handling subjects in wheelchairs can be a sensitive and rarely discussed subject in law enforcement.  Yet encounters with people in wheelchairs can pose officer safety risks for officers. It’s important to remember that although most people in wheelchairs are generally regular people dealing with a challenging situation, that’s definitely not the case with all of them.

Recent statistics indicate there are roughly 3 million people in wheelchairs in the U.S., a number that will likely continue to grow. Just by sheer numbers, it’s increasingly likely you will have line-of-duty contact with a person in a wheelchair.

With that, keep these points in mind when dealing with a person in a wheelchair:

1. Not all people in wheelchairs are permanently bound to one. In some instances, the wheelchair is just used to assist them in getting around but is not absolutely necessary for them to move. Don’t assume that if you turn your back on a subject sitting in a wheelchair, they’ll be in the same position when you turn back around. A wheelchair is a piece of medical equipment, not a restraining device. The subject may be fully capable of getting out of the chair and moving to a position of advantage over you.

Also, remember that some individuals may use wheelchairs as a deceptive means of eliciting sympathy and donations. They may be fully capable of functioning without it. Don’t immediately assume the person in the wheelchair needs to be there.

In legitimate situations, wheelchairs are customized to fit the individual. By performing a quick visual scan to see if the chair is too big or too small for the individual, you may be able to recognize those who are staging their need for the chair.

2. Wheelchairs can be effective for hiding weapons. Knives and guns can be taped to the underside of the seat. Razor blades can be taped to the spokes of the wheels. Weapons can be hidden in pouches attached to the chairs or in purses, backpacks or other bags carried on the lap of the person. When searching, be sure to thoroughly check the individual AND the chair.

Also, be sure to watch the subject’s hands during your encounter. Be alert to any movements toward the bottom of the seat or the armrests, a carrying pouch or under the subject. Be sure to check under any lap blankets.

3. Even wheelchairs themselves can be used as effective weapons. They can pivot and accelerate very quickly, particularly if they’re motorized. Metal footrests can be sharpened to an edge which can cause serious injury to an officer if slammed into the shins. If a criminally minded person in a wheelchair knocks you to the ground, they may have the opportunity to jump on top of you. Keep in mind that many wheelchair subjects have incredible upper body strength. They can be just as capable, if not more capable in some instances, of seriously injuring or even killing you in a ground fight as someone who is fully mobile.

4. Lookout potential. On crime-in-progress calls, don’t overlook seemingly handicapped individuals. They are very capable of acting as lookouts…and may even be the suspect you’re looking for.

5. Consider a traffic stop-like approach. When approaching a wheelchair, use the same approach as you would on a traffic stop. Approach from behind and remain alert to suspicious hand movements or attempts to retrieve or hide something. As in the initial stages of a traffic stop field interview, consider remaining in a position of advantage behind the chair. If two officers are present, one should remain behind the chair acting as a cover officer watching the movements of the subject while the contact officer conducts business with him.

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Calibre Press has 37 years in the business of keeping officers safer, smarter and more successful, from rookie to retirement.