Police Handcuff Procedures

By Cindy Hill

Handcuffs in Law Enforcement

Handcuffs and Case

Handcuffs are the most common form of restraint device used by law enforcement officers. Handcuffs can be made of metal or plastic. They have two hinged circles that open, then close to encircle the wrists, holding the restrained person's hands close together. The two wrist-cuffs are most commonly attached with a short length of chain, but might also be attached with a hinge or with a rigid bar. Law enforcement officers carry handcuffs on their utility belts, usually within a protective leather case. Police procedures relative to handcuff use include directives in the operation of handcuffs, regulations regarding when it is appropriate to use handcuffs and rules for special circumstances and for safeguarding a handcuffed prisoner from injury.

How to Use Handcuffs

Hinge and Ratchet

Wrist-cuffs on most modern handcuffs hinge open into two half-circles, then close with a ratcheting mechanism that allows the cuffs to fit a spectrum of wrist sizes. Once the cuff is closed around a person's wrist, it can not be opened except with a key. Most handcuffs have a double-lock system, which allows the law enforcement officer to lock the cuffs so they do not ratchet down more tightly. Handcuffs are closed tightly enough to preclude the prisoner's hands from slipping through, but with room to slide a finger or two between the cuff and wrist, to avoid doing permanent nerve damage. Most law enforcement agencies handcuff the wrists together behind the prisoner's back, with palms facing outward, to minimize the person's use of their hands. Officers are trained to hold the pair of handcuffs in one hand, properly positioned to press the cuffs swiftly around first one wrist then the other without having to re-arrange them or let go of the cuffs.

When to Use Handcuffs

Placing a person in handcuffs impinges on that person's fundamental right of liberty. Police can only use handcuffs when there is a lawful justification for doing so. Consistent with government's police power to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens, law enforcement agencies can place a person in handcuffs when it is necessary for the protection of the officer, other individuals or the prisoner himself. This includes taking a person into custody for arrest or protection, when transporting a prisoner from one facility to another or when conducting a search of a person's car or house pursuant to a search warrant. Police departments adopt regulations that spell out when it is appropriate for officers to use handcuffs. The officers are then trained to follow their departmental policies.

Use of Handcuffs in Special Circumstances

A law enforcement officer's use of restraints must meet the legal standard of being objectively reasonable. An officer must take into account any special circumstances in which standard handcuff procedures might harm the prisoner. These circumstances include when a prisoner is a juvenile, a pregnant woman, an obese person, or a person who is ill, injured or intoxicated. Departmental regulations will usually specify alternatives to the standard handcuff procedure for these circumstances. Some departments require that pregnant women are to be handcuffed in front rather than behind, and obese individuals are to be handcuffed using two sets of cuffs attached together to avoid straining their shoulders to bring their wrists close enough to use one set of handcuffs.

Safeguarding a Handcuffed Prisoner

A law enforcement officer who places a person in restraints assumes a grave responsibility for that person's well-being. An individual who is handcuffed, particularly with his hands behind his back, might be off-balance and prone to falling. He might also be unable to attend to an injury, such as stopping a cut from bleeding. Police must take reasonable steps to safeguard handcuffed prisoners, including allowing access to necessary medical treatment and being attentive to ensuring the prisoner does not fall or acquire additional injuries while restrained. Most departmental regulations set out specific standards for protecting handcuffed prisoners.

About the Author

A freelance writer since 1978 and attorney since 1981, Cindy Hill has won awards for articles on organic agriculture and wild foods, and has published widely in the areas of law, public policy, local foods and gardening. She holds a B.A. in political science from State University of New York and a Master of Environmental Law and a J.D. from Vermont Law School.