Handcuffing Procedure Is Called Into Question

WHEELING – Deputy Police Chief Martin Kimball said it is departmental policy to handcuff a suspect’s hands behind their back, but admitted officers may not always follow protocol.

Whether to handcuff all suspects behind their back has been a topic for law enforcement for the past several weeks following the deaths of two West Virginia State Police troopers in August.

Luke Baber shot and killed State Police Cpl. Marshall Bailey and Trooper Eric Workman following a traffic stop in Roane County.

The troopers, suspecting Baber to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they stopped him along Interstate 79, handcuffed his hands him in front. That enabled Baber to reach a gun concealed in the front of his pants and fatally shoot both Bailey and Workman.

Baber also shot and wounded a tow truck driver who arrived to tow the stolen truck from the scene. Roane and Clay county sheriff’s deputies killed Baber during a shootout. A Roane County sheriff’s deputy was also wounded in the gunfire.

Kimball said Wheeling officers are taught to handcuff anyone they place under arrest with the suspect’s hands behind their back. Officers also have leg restraints available in their cruisers, if they need to further secure a suspect.

He admitted, however, that he believes officers sometimes handcuff suspects’ hands in front of their bodies. He said that practice may come out of a desire to appear accommodating and not harsh – but it can have fatal consequences.

“Making a prisoner comfortable can get you killed,” Kimball said. “When we make an arrest, we should be following procedures and policies; it’s for our safety, as well as the suspect’s safety.”

Moundsville Police Chief Tom Mitchell said his department does not enforce a standard policy when it comes to handcuffing in the front or back, as officers evaluate each situation before deciding on how to restrain a suspect.

“Our officers are constantly assessing people and that factors into how we proceed, depending on the suspect and the nature of the crime,” Mitchell said. A suspect’s compliance with officers also factors heavily into the decision of whether to handcuff them in front of or behind their body, he added.

The Martins Ferry Police Department’s handcuff policy also does not address whether to restrain a suspect’s hands in the front or back. It states, in part, a suspect will be handcuffed only “when it reasonably appears necessary to gain control of the person while in the performance of the officer’s lawful duties.”

In the state trooper shooting, one of the two troopers reportedly patted down Baber but failed to discover the gun he pulled from the front of his pants.

Kimball said a thorough pat-down of a suspect is crucial to ensuring officer safety as well. Any brief feeling of awkwardness that an officer may encounter during a pat-down is trumped by a need to reveal anything on a suspect that poses a threat.

“Officers need to go the extra mile to assure their own safety,” Kimball said. “Sometimes we get complacent, and we need to combat that.”

Since the deaths of Bailey and Workman, West Virginia State Police have said they are evaluating the agency’s arrest procedures. Troopers have the discretion to handcuff a suspect’s hands in front of or behind their body, depending on the circumstances.