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Search first or handcuff first? Neither!

The 'search first' and the 'handcuff first' theories have inherent dangers — the Grip-Protective Sweep (GPS) technique is a good 'somewhere in between' strategy

A county deputy was shot in the face and killed by an auto theft suspect. A city police officer was shot in the face and killed by a subject trying to cash bad checks. A state trooper was shot in the upper body during a car stop. The trooper survived despite numerous bullet wounds. In all three events the officers were standing behind the suspects attempting to handcuff them when the offender pulled a hidden weapon and shot over their shoulders striking the officers.

Let’s list the “mistakes” some say these officers made. First, the officers did not correctly apply a control-hold while performing the handcuffing. Next, the officers did not put the suspect in a position of disadvantage. Third, the officers should have waited for a backup officer before attempting the arrest, and operating alone was the ultimate error. Fourth, the officers were all attempting to place the handcuff on the controlled wrist when they should have cuffed the uncontrolled hand first. Finally, the officers were shot because they were handcuffing before searching; and, had they searched first they would have discovered the weapon before the subject had an opportunity to access it.

To all these arguments I respond, “Maybe...maybe not.”

It’s human nature to go into denial when hearing of these tragedies. Cops are very susceptible to this trait due to our drive and controlling nature. When an officer is killed in the line of duty, we have an inherent emotional need to explain it by delineating the mistakes made, confident that we would not have made those errors. But, if we are intellectually honest, we will acknowledge that we all make errors every day; and we would admit that we have often operated in a similar fashion. There but for the grace of God go anyone of us.

How can we improve our odds in similar circumstances? First, after acknowledging that we are only human, prone to errors, and not invincible, we admit that:

1. There is no “control-hold” that can absolutely control everyone.
2. There is no such thing as a “position of advantage” or a “position of disadvantage.” The suspect almost always has the advantage. He has no rules of engagement. He has no need to follow any constitutional provisions or force policies. He usually gets the first move, forcing us to respond to his actions. We can only operate in a way that provides “less-disadvantage” to us and “less-advantage” for the suspect.
3. Backup officers are not always available, or the immediacy of the action makes it imprudent to wait for backup.
4. Grasping one of the suspect’s hands and cuffing the other hand does not necessarily control either.
5. The belief that searching before handcuffing is the magic bullet is erroneous. In the case of the deputy, he did search first but missed a firearm concealed in the suspect’s rear pants pocket. Additionally, if you are conducting a full body search in close quarters with an unsecured subject, then you are exposed in both place and time. In other words, you have a divided-attention issue wherein you are trying to both control and search a subject simultaneously — and you’re doing this for a relatively extended time period. If the suspect is dedicating all his mental effort on developing a plan of attack while you are busy controlling, searching, scanning for other threats, listening to your radio, considering what you are physically detecting, determining whether you have the legal authority to continue your actions, etcetera, then you are seriously behind the reactionary curve — especially since you have virtually no reaction time due to the intimacy of the distance.

Once we recognize the disadvantages we face, we can then begin to formulate survival strategies. But, first we need to recognize one last idiosyncrasy shared by the three described events. In each case the officers had contact with only one of the subject’s hands during the cuffing process. All subjects had one hand free, and in each case it was the right hand. The vast majority of the population is right handed. Should we cuff that hand or control that hand? If you’re following the human factors under discussion, you know there is no good answer to this question.

Most officers when conducting a pat-frisk have the subject’s hands interlaced either behind his head or at the small of his back. Where you frisk will depend upon where you reasonably believe a weapon might be secreted. The law allows you to search the outer clothing from head to toe, including reaching under shirts and jackets when reasonably necessary.

Offenders generally carry their firearms in the waistband and pockets. They do so for ease of access. Therefore, most defense-tactics search patterns start with these areas before moving to less probable and less accessible areas. If you really believe that a subject is armed wouldn’t you be safer if he was handcuffed before you frisked him? Of course you would. But, in the process of handcuffing him you have the divided-attention issue discussed earlier. You are trying to control his hands while you are accessing your handcuffs, getting the proper grip on the cuffs, and then applying them to the subject’s wrists. Meanwhile, the subject might have a weapon of which you are unaware but is immediately accessible to him.

Tactics are a tradeoff — a balancing act. Every time you create a tactic to solve a problem, you create a new problem. Both the “search first” and the “handcuff first” theories have inherent dangers. I submit that we must find the reasonable “somewhere in between” strategy. That strategy is the Grip-Protective Sweep (GPS). Simply put, grip the subject’s hands either behind his head or behind his back. Know that there are pros and cons to each of these positions (in fact, that is a topic of discussion we will have at another time in the future).

Conduct a limited frisk of the areas that subjects are known to carry weapons and that are easily accessible to them. We call this a “protective sweep” to discriminate between this action and a full search. Once you have determined to the best of your ability that the subject is not armed with an immediately accessible weapon (and if he does have one, use your trained tactics to deal with that) handcuff him. After he is handcuffed, conduct your Terry frisk or your search incident to arrest.

We have used this strategy at the San Jose Police academy with good success. Is this the silver bullet? Probably not. After 29 years of law enforcement experience, the only thing I know is that the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. But, at this point the strategy seems to fulfill the needs of the “balancing act” between the search first / handcuff first extremes. You satisfy the “search first” proponents by establishing whether or not there is a weapon present in the “high-risk” areas before handcuffing. You satisfy the “handcuff first” proponents by handcuffing a subject prior to conducting a full-body search. You limit your “time in the hole” (that area in close proximity to a subject) with an unsecured suspect. And, you satisfy the human factors experts who correctly insist that it is extremely difficult to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

I am open to suggestions from others, and always willing to learn something new. If you have a tactic that works for you I certainly would like to know about it. Please contact me and tell me about your experiences. Like most trainers, I steal from others without remorse.

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