The following is a post from The Virtus Group member Louis Hayes, Jr.

Ask any American police officer how to secure a suspect into handcuffs and the response will be the same: Behind the back, palms out. It’s one of the few standards on which all cops agree. It’s also a practice that most every cop has violated at some point or another, with the best of justifications.

Last week, the NYPD announced a policy change allowing its police officers to handcuff arrestees in the front of their bodies in select circumstances. While I haven’t seen the actual written policy proposal yet, I have read a fair share of criticism of the new policy in social media and online comments. I just can’t figure out what all the drama is about.

In 18 years (and counting) as a police officer, I’ve handcuffed easily more than a thousand arrestees.  Charges range from murder, to rape, to domestic terror, to home invasion, to robbery. But let’s face it: the bulk of the offenses are drunk driving, possession of drugs, underage alcohol consumption, disorderly conduct, unlicensed driving, or other “petty” arrest warrants.

As such, I’ve arrested: grandmas; guys in wheelchairs; fat guys (really fat!); people with casts on their broken arms; pregnant moms (like really pregnant too); the guy I “knocked-out cold” when he attacked me; the guy with only one arm; another man with a missing hand; countless single working moms who forgot to get their minivans’ emissions tested…resulting in their drivers licenses being suspended; a man who was shot lifeless by police officers; the driver in a 100mph car chase with a driver who turned out to be NINE years old. We handcuffed them all.

Some of them, I even “front cuffed.”

All of these suspects posed some danger during the arrest and booking process. But equal threat? Absolutely not.

However, what I am reading in comments about the NYPD’s new “front cuffing” policy is that cops should always cuff arrestees with their hands in back of their bodies. The critics are basically arguing for a single solution to multiple problems.

And that’s just nonsense.

Most of these comments are, of course, coming from cops, unions representatives, and law enforcement trainers. What I see as ironic is these are typically the same groups of folks who demand more flexibility and more discretion and more alternatives in police agency procedure and policy. Yet here they call for keeping a rigid, absolute, zero tolerance policy that requires handcuffing all arrestees “in back” in the same manner regardless of circumstances - with suspects’ hands behind their bodies.

The logic is flawed. If we street cops (and our unions) demand open, flexible, discretion-rich policy to account for the complexities and uniqueness of problems in the field, shouldn’t we be openly accepting the same when it comes to tactical options of handcuffing? If we want wide discretion for issues such as use of force, stop-and-frisk, and decisions to arrest or not…why can’t the technical aspects of handcuffing be just as flexible?

I’m sick of seeing agency policy and training designed around anecdotal stories that begin with, “This one time…” They are anomalies. Yes, they are real, but we cannot be hanging all our practices on isolated and unrepeated instances. Should these remind us to be aware? Yes. But we cannot become hyper-vigilant exaggerators of risk as some of these stories tend to do to us.

Will conniving suspects fake injuries or claim disability when they learn of more “front cuffing” options? Will we have arrestees who complain because they weren’t afforded the comfort of front cuffing? Will we be open to discrimination for our decisions on how to handcuff? Absolutely!

But what else do we have? We have cops who are some of the most ingenious, adaptive, and creative problem-solvers in the free world. We have a judicial system that gives tremendous allowance to officers engaged in dynamic street encounters. We have hinge-style handcuffs that restrict twisting movements. We have leather or nylon restraint belts. We use suspect’s own pants belts to further restrict the range of movement. We have zip-ties and flex cuffs to attach cuffs to belts or around waists. We have leg shackles and hobbles. We link together multiple sets of cuffs to “lengthen” the chain.

We have options. Lots of options. And in policing, options are good. They allow us to solve problems creatively – accounting for the uniqueness of each and every situation. Just like use of force tools. Or crisis intervention resources. Or SWAT tactics. But we need more cops who can better navigate the challenging questions of “how” or “why” certain decisions were made.

Fighting against a policy that gives us, as police officers, freedoms to exercise our discretion makes no sense to me. Especially when we have so many restraint tools, equipment, and techniques available to us to keep us safe – and display some aspect of compassion and humanity at the same time!

Robotic obedience to a zero tolerance “always cuff in back” policy is really doing nothing except handcuffing our police officers from being thinking humans. Let’s prove to our communities that we’re smart enough to figure this out on our own.

But then I look at the one odd-looking handcuff key I keep in my drawer at work. A handcuff key that had been in the pocket of an arrestee…who I had locked up in my handcuffs…who twisted his “palms-out” hands from his back into his front…trying to unlock himself with the key I missed during the initial patdown search. I thwarted his escape that night. Who knows what his real intentions were? Only he.

It’s a case of “this one time” that keeps me on my toes - to be ready for all the really bad people that have been in my handcuffs over the years…and for those who I’ve yet to put in them. How will I cuff them? Behind the back, palms-out. But not always.


Louis Hayes, Jr is a system thinker and provocateur for The Virtus Group, Inc, a firm devoted to developing public safety leadership. He is a law enforcement trainer with biases in Constitutional law, crisis intervention, and tactical policing. Lou can be reached on Twitter @LouHayesJr and under #ThinkLE.

Be sure to follow these ideas at @TheVirtusGroup.



10/20/2015 12:44am

Completely agree with the article and I'm actually surprised that police are speaking out against this(I'm taking your word for it as this is the first I'm hearing of it).

On another note, Is there I place I can go read the past articles or are they all just gone?

10/20/2015 6:41pm

Ryan, thanks. Sadly, *most* of the old blog posts are gone. Some of the authors have been able to resurrect the material, so you might be seeing some older posts come back. You can try www.theillinoismodel.com for more from me.

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