Why SWAT teams need a 'hands-free' operator

It’s not only awkward, but dangerous to try to handcuff a suspect while carrying a long gun, a shield, or a baton — the officer trying to accomplish this is in a less than advantageous position

It’s not only awkward, but dangerous to try to handcuff a suspect while carrying a long gun, a shield, or a baton — the officer trying to accomplish this is in a less than advantageous position. Yet in tactical situations officers are often put into positions where they feel compelled to attempt this difficult task.

This happens because teams enter into situations abundantly prepared for the worst case scenario –  a gun fight, but ill prepared for the best case scenario – the sudden appearance of compliant suspects. This is where the unnecessary stumbling often occurs.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a long gun at the scene of a handcuffing. It means the officer holding the long gun should not be expected to have to physically control and handcuff the suspect.

This can be easily rectified in all cases except those where unarmed but aggressive suspects dynamically advance on the officers.

Assign Hands-Free Officers
For lack of a better term, in the early days, we inserted what we called the “hands free officers” to our SWAT team on every entry we planned. They were situated toward the back of the stack and were armed with their hand guns.

Today I would refer to them as “contact officers.”

When possible, these officers were defensive tactics instructors who were very skilled at empty hand control. In addition to their handguns, they had access to a baton, pepper spray, and TASER. They also were equipped with multiple handcuffs and flex cuffs. 

When confronted with cooperative suspects, the lead elements of the team would shout ‘suspects down’ and cover as the “hands-free officers” would move around, holster their weapon, handcuff the suspect and do an initial protective search of the suspect, while the team covered the suspect and danger areas.

In the case of an unarmed, but non-compliant suspect these hands-free officers were able to quickly holster their duty weapons and address the non-compliant suspect with either the appropriate empty hand control tactics, or alternative tool.

These arrests were all accomplished quickly, because the specific officers tasked in advance to perform these arrests were as proficient with the mechanics of physical arrests as the sniper was proficient with his Remington .308.

Arrest Teams
During  riots, our Civil Unrest Team utilized the same concept, except the hands-free officers were referred to as “Arrest Teams.”

Upon forming the line to hold or clear an area, we would also place an arrest team in close support of the front line. Since the front line officers usually had their hands occupied with batons and/or shields, it was difficult for them to apprehend and effectively control suspects in need of arrest. For your lines to have credibility and respect of the crowd, they must show the ability to efficiently make arrests when warranted.

The front-line officers often could sweep suspects, aggressively encroaching upon the line, through and behind the line to the arrest team. These officers in direct support of the line, whose hands were free, were able to control and handcuff the suspects.

Another arrest team can be standing by in columns behind the line ready to venture out as a team to apprehend suspects as needed and bring them back behind the line. Some members of this team moving out to make the arrests should be designated as the Contact Officers while others will cover the movement and the arrests.

Have Your Best Make the Arrest
As mentioned, both of these situations are simply dynamic applications of the concept of contact-cover. The hands-free” officers in the Tactical Entry Team as well as the “Arrest Team” members in close support of the line are the contact officers, while the other team members provide the cover.

Having particular members designated in advance of tactical situations that are responsible for making the arrest is no different than having trained snipers doing protective over-watch, grenadiers delivering chemical munitions, and breachers clearing a path for entry. There will be less fumbling about in those critical moments of contact when it is pre-determined who will apply the handcuffs.

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