I was recently involved in a use of force investigation where two police officers utilized physical force on an arrest who was handcuffed. The officers had a drawn-out battle with the suspect to get him into handcuffs during the arrest and were escorting him to the police vehicle when he again began to vigorously resist the officers control efforts. The offender attempted to twist his torso around to face the officers (he had already spit on one of the officers during the initial arrest). As a result, a take-down was conducted on the perpetrator and once on the ground, the officers used subsequent striking techniques to control him and place him into a leg restraint strap to stop him from kicking and applied a spit-hood.

As this incident was video-captured on bystander’s cell phones, it garnered a lot of negative reaction when posted on social media because the offender was ‘handcuffed and he couldn’t do anything’. The agency that employed the officers placed them on administrative duties and launched an investigation that ultimately led to the recommendation for criminal charges against the officers. This is when I became involved in this incident as a use of force expert analyst.

And so, the question (and title of this article) is, ‘Does handcuffed equal harmless?’. To any front-line officer who has had to try to control a handcuffed and combative person, the answer to this should be obvious. However, and probably understandably, society and the judicial system does often struggle to understand the realities within the realm of interpersonal violence – the reality that police officers are all too familiar with.

I felt it would be helpful to discuss some of the critical issues of how dangerous offenders in handcuffs, who are committed to acting violently, can be and how they can successfully carry out assaults on police officers that can result in very serious injuries.

In a study conducted for the US Department of Justice, 562 use-of-force incidents were reviewed. In all of the cases where officers were assaulted, suspects used their legs and feet to cause injuries in 12 percent of all cases of subject resistance[1].

In another study conducted by the Police Research Group of the British Home Office, the cause of officer injuries (out of 226 cases) was kicks (13%), head butts (6%), and Bites (6%). Interestingly, in 7 percent of all assaults on officers, the subjects were already in handcuffs at the point when the assault occurred[2].

The ability of handcuffed suspects to successfully carry out an assault on officers has been well documented. In another case I was personally involved in, a male was arrested for public intoxication and was handcuffed without incident. While being placed into the police vehicle he became assaultive and managed to kick one of the arresting officers in the face. The officer was knocked unconscious and was transported to hospital. When she eventually returned to work after several weeks of recovery, she still experienced permanent memory loss of certain portions of her past.

In a case discussed in the aforementioned Home Office study, a subject had been arrested for public intoxication. He became abusive and aggressive towards the officers who were able to restrain and handcuff the subject. While being transported to cells, the assailant attacked one of the officers who was sitting in the back seat, biting his finger. Once at city cells, he stomped on another officer’s foot and managed to head-butt him, breaking his nose and requiring him to take eight days leave to recover from his injuries[3].

In a recent case from Phoenix (February 2017), a male acting suspiciously was arrested, handcuffed and placed into he back seat of the patrol car. Before the officers could close the door, the suspect managed to burst from the backseat and with a knife he had hidden in his back-waistband area, stabbed one of the officers. The suspect knocked the second officer over and he struck his head on the roadway resulting in head injuries. (There are a lot of other tactical lessons to be learned here – the importance of thorough searches, where suspects hide weapons, control in the vehicle, etc. – but those are for another article!).

While there are numerous further examples that could be described, I hope the point has been made that handcuffed does not equal harmless; officers are correctly taught that it is imperative to maintain constant physical control of handcuffed subjects in order to prevent them from having the ability to carry out assaults. Sometimes, when an offender is focused on violent behavior, that physical control will require stunning and striking techniques or perhaps a conducted energy weapon to bring an offender back under restraint and control. In these cases, the use of leg restraining devices should be also be considered to limit the ability of the offender to kick.

It is important our police administrators and the judicial system understands these critical issues.

[1] The Force Factor: Measuring and Assessing Police Use of Force and Suspect Resistance. Geoffrey P. Alpert and Roger G. Dunham.

[2] Assaults on Police Officers: An Examination of the Circumstances in which such Incidents Occur. Ben Brown, Police Research Group; London Home Office.

[3] Ibid