It’s no secret that there are unreasonable people in this world—otherwise, you wouldn’t have a job. A suspect who resists the inevitability of being handcuffed, forces you and other officers to use your body weight to control him long enough to get him restrained. But what of the handcuffed prisoner who continues to struggle and attempts to harm officers? In the past, hobbles and continued body weight have been the answer. This method of continued restraint, however, is being misrepresented to courts around the country as something that predictably results in suspect death, leading to adverse judgments and case law negatively affecting your ability to control the unreasonable suspect safely.
The possibility of a prisoner suddenly dying in custody from “excited delirium” must be considered by arresting officers whenever a prisoner continues to violently thrash and flail about. When a prisoner unexpectedly dies following being restrained in handcuffs, allegations of unlawful death soon follow. In the inevitable lawsuit, plaintiffs allege that the officers’ actions killed—or even murdered—the decedent, despite the autopsy’s finding of minor bruising and scrapes with no forensic evidence of fatal abuse. Their theory is, “The police used force. The suspect died. Ergo, the police killed him. Pay us money.”
Plaintiffs will advance the discredited theory of “positional asphyxia,” especially if a hobble is employed during the restraint—which they label as “hogtying.” They accuse the officers of knowingly placing the suspect into a possibly deadly situation—proned out with multiple officers kneeling on top of him. This act of kneeling upon the suspect while attempting to restrain his arms is alleged to have compressed his upper torso, causing his death due to asphyxiation. They and their experts (often high-ranking former police officers) reject the science of physiology and the history of excited delirium and in-custody deaths, blaming officers and their methods. The latest case adverse to the police is Abston v. City of Merced (9th Circuit. 2013).
Excited delirium is not a new theory that was developed, as alleged by plaintiffs, to justify officer misconduct and the murder of people. Dr. Luther Bell, a physician specializing in mental health issues recognized that some patients died while in an agitated state. He named this manner of death, “Bell’s Syndrome,” or “excited delirium” in 1849. We have seen this syndrome manifest in suspect and prisoner deaths in modern policing where various methods of restraint or force have been blamed.
1986: Neck Restraints. As a result of multiple in-custody deaths, LA County Deputy Coroner Ronald N. Kornblum, M.D., publishes a report concluding that the bar-arm restraint taught to LAPD officers was the cause of death due to compression of the trachea and vessels of the neck. 60% of all police departments banned the carotid restraint leading to a 650% increase in suspect injuries, and a 560% increase in officer injuries the following year (Source: LAPD).
Mid-1990s: Oleoresin Capsicum Spray. OC, or pepper spray, because it inflames the mucous membranes and decreases the airways, causes death according to the ACLU.
Mid-1990s to present: TASER. The TASER is alleged to cause the subject’s eventual death minutes or hours later.
Mid-1990s to present: Police body weight. Kneeling on a person, even though that individual remains alive after the weight is removed, inevitably causes death.
Excited delirium is a medical problem that can lead to death. It is not a police-caused phenomenon. That said, like a bad habit, it is very difficult to eradicate the idea of positional asphyxia because plaintiffs and their experts have a financial interest in keeping this concept alive.
Compression asphyxia is a preventable danger. With sufficient time and weight on the upper body, the suspect’s ability to breathe is so limited that suffocation is possible. Like an anaconda snake killing its prey: every time the suspect breathes out, the body weight of the officers prevents the suspect from reinflating his lungs fully—eventually the lung capacity is so limited it cannot support life. If enough weight is kept on the upper torso, oxygen levels become critical and the body dies. However, officers removing their weight from the subject before death occurs permits that individual to recover. Like an athlete who works to peak effort, stopping the exercise results in a return to stasis. If the officers remove their weight after handcuffing the individual, and he is able to speak and breathe, it is not the officers’ kneeling on him that kills the prisoner—it is likely excited delirium.
Despite plaintiff experts’ opining that “Everyone knows that kneeling on a struggling subject kills people, and they ought to restrain them in a manner similar to that used in mental hospitals,” there is no practical method that effectively takes charge of a resisting suspect other than body weight until they are handcuffed. The suspect who continues to violently resist or attempts to harm officers remains problematic.
One Handcuffed Prisoner, Two Officers
When the subject is taken to the ground, the only practicable solution to prevent his rolling on to his back is to use body weight to his upper torso. To date, this is the only practical method developed to initially get him handcuffed. Until now, there has been no real alternative to restraining a violent handcuffed prisoner other than through applied bodyweight. A new method of restraining a violent handcuffed prisoner without bodyweight or significant force by two officers has been developed and promises to be an effective alternative to kneeling on a handcuffed subject. Let’s walk through the arrest process.
When a proned suspect refuses to comply, rather than wrestle his arms to the small of his back into cuffing position, it is far simpler and much more practical to simply handcuff each wrist at the first possible moment. This provides a handle on each wrist as well as pain compliance. Now each arm is forced to his back and the empty cuffs are cuffed together—cuff the cuffs. Once the handcuffs are secured and he finally stops resisting, the handcuffs can be adjusted and the prisoner transported in one set of restraints.
If the prisoner continues to unreasonably flail about, attempting to injure himself or others, his health and welfare now becomes the responsibility of the officers. To safely restrain him further, both officers move to either side of his torso. Each officer puts his knees to the ground, and scoots up against the suspect’s shoulders and elbows, using their legs to press the suspect’s arms against his body.
Both officers working together pin the suspect between them. There is no body weight necessary to press him to the ground. A very strong and determined individual may require an officer to press down on his shoulder blade with fingertip pressure to keep his arm in contact with that officer’s legs—the pressure needed is surprisingly light. Sometimes a prisoner will attempt to spin out from the officers, but this is dealt with simply by the officers repositioning, shuffling on their knees to keep the suspect pinned between them both. If he kicks, a hobble can be used to keep the legs together.
Prevent the Appearance of Misconduct
When you respond to a call of a disrobing, screaming, growling, grunting individual who is acting wildly, aggressing lights, with an apparent intense dislike of glass and shiny objects and very hot to the touch, this is an individual who is in immediate need of medical aid and sedation by paramedics. However, it is the police who must restrain him using their tactics and force tools so paramedics have the opportunity to save his life. Staging the medics early should always be considered as this person is exhibiting signs of sudden in-custody death.
In order to prevent a prolonged struggle by this drugged or deranged subject who exhibits immunity to pain as well as superhuman strength, the optimal method of quick restraint is a TASER. Once down and under TASER power, he needs to be quickly placed into handcuffs. There is nothing as effective as the officers’ body weight to do this, pinning his upper torso to the ground as the wrists are handcuffed.
Once cuffed, all weight is removed from the prisoner’s body, and the officers use their knees to pinch him between them, preventing him from significantly moving but not in any way affecting his ability to breathe. If he continues to kick, a hobble can be placed around the ankles and cinched up, with the tail left unattached or held by a third officer. If he attempts to slam his head into the ground, placing a hand on his head and keeping it pinned to the ground is sufficient. If he is so determined that he threatens to roll, a hand to his shoulder blade, requiring little force keeps him secured. In this manner, he may be held indefinitely—and safely—until paramedics arrive and take custody of him.
This is an extremely effective method of protecting the prisoner from himself while also preventing the violently out of control subject from harming officers. It is deceptively simple, and is often greeted with skepticism by officers until they actually attempt it and find it a practical solution to a problem to which there really has been no satisfactory solution.
While the fiction of positional asphyxia will likely not go away, the problem of suspects dying in-custody due to their own drug-taking may be minimized. Additionally, as more and more paramedics are authorized to treat this cluster of signs with ketamine and other injectable drugs to immediately calm and suspend the subject’s ability to physically resist, even more will be prevented.
Now there is an alternative to using body weight to control a handcuffed violently resisting prisoner. If the suspect dies following his being restrained, it may not stop plaintiffs and others from accusing the police of causing the death, but it will eliminate some ammunition for their arguments. And it is more effective in maintaining control of the handcuffed prisoner. This is a win-win for officers and the prisoners they are attempting to protect from themselves.