Suspects handcuffed by police are helpless, right–harmless? Well, let’s see about that. I’ve been assaulted by handcuffed suspects—every cop with some time on has been. Suspects have spit at, scratched, bitten, kicked, head-butted, stolen patrol cars, stabbed, shot, and killed police officers—all while handcuffed.
Still, police chiefs often discipline or even fire officers for using force against the so-called “helpless” handcuffed prisoners who’d assaulted them. Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole recently fired my friend, Adley Shepherd, from the Seattle Police Department (SPD) despite his force being applied within a split-second of a suspect having kicked him in the head and in spite of SPD’s lead defensive tactics training instructor commenting, “I thought he did it perfectly.” How else can an officer perform and still keep his job if “perfectly” is not good enough. This expert assessment did not come from a liberal city council member, a Black Lives Matter activist, or a police chief appointed by a liberal mayor–it came from the guy who teaches this stuff to cops.
Of course departments should be concerned about police officers using excessive force and punish it where it truly occurs. But is any force excessive just because the resisting suspect is handcuffed? Simple logic tells us a handcuffed suspect who assaults an officer is, by definition, not harmless.
We have to ask this question: Was the officer’s response reasonable for the specific circumstances? An officer must bring an uncooperative suspect under control, quickly. I once had a handcuffed suspect kick out the rear passenger window of my patrol car. Just imagine if such a kick were to my head or face? The force of a kick is greater than that of a punch. It’s even worse if the assailant is wearing hard shoes or boots.
With all the cop ambushes (four more souls taken from us, yesterday), an officer cannot afford distractions. A part of bringing a suspect (handcuffed or not) under control includes gaining physical compliance, either voluntarily or by force. An officer has certain use-of-force options with any combative suspect. Should certain force options be unavailable just because the suspect is handcuffed, regardless of their level of resistance?
One of the officer’s force options is to strike a combative suspect with an impact (or body) weapon (hand, foot, etc.). If a suspect is not handcuffed and kicks an officer, you would probably think it reasonable that a punch would be one possible force option used. So, if a handcuffed suspect kicks an officer, what’s the difference? It’s not like Officer Shepherd continued to beat the suspect; he only struck her once to prevent her from assaulting him again and to bring her under control. And just try doing that while the combative suspect is leaning against the backseat, hands behind her back, with perfect leverage to kick the officer.
Another factor is any human being’s reaction to pain. Pain does not distinguish between that inflicted by a handcuffed or non-handcuffed person, kicking a police officer in the head. Within the heat of a human’s response to pain, the initial force used, due to adrenaline and stress, is likely to be higher than intended. Human beings avoid pain and do not wish to have it repeated.
We also need to remember it is the handcuffed suspect who triggered the officer’s use-of-force. The suspect committed a felony by assaulting a police officer, to which the officer has no choice but to respond.
Besides the natural reaction to pain, one has to consider a cop’s response to a suspect’s physical resistance. As long as a suspect is not under control, both the suspect and officer remain at a higher risk of injury. A lieutenant once told me that officer safety requires an officer to end any resistance as soon as possible because anything can happen when officers don’t have suspects under control. A distracted officer is a target for anyone in the vicinity who might take offense to a cop using force to facilitate an arrest. Does that sound likely these days?
What would you do?
Put yourself in the officers shiny black shoes: You have dedicated your life to serving and protecting your community for almost a decade. You arrive to investigate a domestic violence incident. You have determined the primary aggressor who will go to jail. You handcuff the suspect and while placing her in your patrol car, she leans back against the seat and kicks you in the face—with her boot.
This stuns you, and you react to the pain and non-compliance by punching the suspect in the face–once–to prevent another assault, deescalate the situation, and bring the combative suspect under control. It works. The suspect’s assault and your reaction occurred within seconds of each other. The department’s head defensive tactics trainer, the person responsible for your training, has determined your use-of-force was, “perfect” (you performed precisely as your training taught you).
Yet, your police chief, after months of deliberations, has decided she knows better what force was necessary and proper than the officer involved did in that split second and knows better than the person she has in charge of teaching her officers how to overcome combative suspects in myriad dangerous circumstances.
So, yet another police officer is sacrificed on the altar of left wing political correctness. Seattle’s police chief commented on Shepherd’s case, “Common sense alone was sufficient to determine that the level of force used was not reasonable or necessary.” Sounds more like uncommon nonsense to me.
It would be interesting to see how Chief O’Toole would have reacted if she had been the arresting officer and that suspect had kicked her in the face (I know, a chief of a large city make an arrest, hah!). Interesting how her “common sense” does not match the common sense of patrol officers who confront these situations daily with only a split-second to respond. And what about her own police defensive tactics instructors who go beyond common sense and teach officers “best practice,” specific, techniques on ways to counter combative suspects?
How do you think police defensive tactics trainers feel when the police chief fires officers for using techniques they taught in training? Why should officers trust anything they learn in defensive tactics if applying those tactics in the real world gets them fired–or prosecuted? Why should cops trust their leaders at all?