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Handcuffing: It helps police avoid using deadly force
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

About 15 years ago I took a phone call from an angry citizen.

They had just seen police "take down" a group of 12-year-old boys along the street at gunpoint. The police then handcuffed the three individuals.

The caller said she had it all on video and that she wanted to share it with the world to show how unprofessional the police were. I took her phone number and said I'd call her back.

After checking, police had received a 9-1-1 call minutes prior to the encounter on the street that several young boys were seen near the school campus after school brandishing a long knife in a menacing manner. The responding officers noted that two of the three boys they saw walking along the street matched the description the caller provided the dispatcher.

The officers detained the three, handcuffed them and seated them on the curb while they sorted out the situation. They found no knife on any of the three boys. And while they could have ditched it, after a short inquiry they determined that the three were not involved with the knife incident and let them go.

I called the lady back and shared what I had been told.

Her response? She said they didn't have to cuff them since they were 12 year-old boys. After all, what harm could a kid do? She was more than miffed that I said we weren't going to do a story. Before she hung up she said she was calling KCRA-TV because they weren't "kissing the a-- of cops." The TV station passed as well.

In retrospect, I wish I had done a story although there was really nothing to it.

Some people assume officers handcuff people they arrest for relatively minor infractions or detain for questioning but then ultimately release because they are on a power trip.

Nothing is farther from the truth. The decision to handcuff someone has more to do with assuring the safety of that individual, the officer, and others nearby more than anything else.

Let's go back to the report of boys brandishing a knife for a second. What if one of the boys after they were being questioned suddenly started reaching into the back of their pants and started walking toward an officer when they were sternly told not to do so? The odds are high the officer would likely draw his weapon if the boy did produce a knife suddenly as it would imperil his safety.

Teens do kill police officers just like teens kill others.

By handcuffing those stopped in connection with a report involving a weapon such as a knife, it reduces the potential for deadly force. Some argue that if a kid draws a knife that officers could simply shoot to wound. Really. Assuming an officer still has time to respond before being attacked first, this is not Hollywood. Shooting a leg or an arm when they are coming at you - or even a gun out of an individual's hands - is not a high percentage shot. That is why officers generally aim for the torso. The object is not to kill in most situations but to end the threat.

A 12-year-old boy who matches witness descriptions and is stopped for questioning with a knife incident can be impulsive just like a hardcore criminal. An officer has no idea if they have a weapon when they make a threatening move.

Handcuffing significantly decreases the potential for serious injury or death.

Obviously police in most of their encounters do not handcuff people they are detaining for questioning as they try to sort a situation out.

That hasn't stopped people from filing lawsuits, however, because they were handcuffed, questioned, and then released.

Police are not robots that can be made whole by changing out damaged circuit boards. They have families. They bleed. They are not mind readers.

A former high school classmate in 1988 who was 32 years old at the time was depressed about his girlfriend leaving him. He showed up at his mom's home in the rural foothills east of Lincoln screaming incoherently and brandishing a revolver. His mother called the Placer County Sheriff's Department.

Responding deputies found the classmate walking about in his mother's front yard yelling. As officers approached, he started raising his gun. His mom said officers told him twice to stop. When he moved it up higher, officers opened fire. They struck him twice including once in the groin. He lived.

Afterwards, the investigation revealed the gun wasn't loaded. His intent was to have officers kill him.

There is no way the two deputies could have known the gun was unloaded.

Both officers went home to their families that day and the classmate eventually recovered from his wounds.

Monday morning quarterbacking is always easy to do when you're not the one dealing with a potentially deadly situation unfolding in what often is a matter of seconds.

This is not to say there aren't law enforcement officers that step over the line and who should be prosecuted.

But day in and day out with literally tens of thousands of traffic stops and/or other detentions by police in the United States, the number of questionable incidents is extremely low.

To make a blanket generalization about police conduct is not only wrong but to do so when day-in-and-day-out officers for the most part never cross the line while doing a near impossible job is inexcusable.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.