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Why you need to be a control freak during prisoner transport

Vigilance at every step helps officers avoid complacency and ward off prisoner escapes or assaults

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In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, Shasta County Deputy Sheriff Christine Gerring, left, removes the restraints from a prisoner after transporting convicted felons from the Shasta County Jail to the Deuel Vocational Institute near Tracy, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Have you ever been called a control freak? Most of the time people prefer not to be labeled with such a derogatory title because it usually means that the freak in question enjoys controlling others and the world around them. Thinking tactically for a moment though, is it ever OK to be a control freak? I would say that when it comes to exercising absolute control over someone who is under arrest and in your custody, you should wear the title like a badge of honor.

We know the causes and the effects of complacency. Escapes happen, officers are assaulted or killed, and reactive training follows year after year. So why will there be more of the same next year? The answer is simple – someone will fail to maintain control.

Basically, the word “control means total ownership of a given situation. Most law enforcement officers have little problem understanding the concept when it comes to seizing control at the scene of an incident or over the persons involved. It’s the maintaining part that sometimes trips us up.

It’s safe to say that every law enforcement agency has policies for securing and transporting prisoners. The policies are designed to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone involved. Yet policies can only outline the procedures to follow; they cannot take control or maintain control of a subject in custody. Words in a manual cannot become distracted or complacent. Regulations cannot deliberately circumvent themselves. Only officers can do that.

In this article, we will review some of the basic practices regarding the security and transportation of prisoners, as well as additional considerations that can help an officer maintain control of someone in custody.

The Detention Triad

Usually, the first stop for an arrestee is a visit to the local station. This is where we conduct the business of processing, paperwork and phone calls. Some might think that the hardest task is getting them there; however, keeping them there can sometimes prove more difficult.

From the moment prisoners are brought into the station, we need to do everything possible to make it tough for them to escape, to hurt themselves or, even worse, to hurt one of us. The easiest way to accomplish this is to follow established procedures and training. Remember what I like to call the detention triad:

  • Search your prisoner
  • Restrain your prisoner
  • Maintain direct, continuous, personal supervision of your prisoner.

Searching a prisoner requires discipline to do it the correct way, every time. All too often, the desire to quickly remove someone from a scene and get them to the station causes some officers to expedite their search, becoming satisfied with something less than thorough.

Another problem is the perceived level of subject cooperation, or erroneously believing that age, gender, or severity of crime make someone less of a threat. Remember that you are the final line against someone bringing a weapon into the security of your workplace. You owe it to your coworkers, and any member of the public who might be present, to ensure that your prisoner can’t hurt them.

Searching also extends to anywhere the prisoner will be detained. Areas for prisoner detention may be designated by agency regulation and may limit the type of items permitted for interviewing and processing. These areas should be searched before and after prisoner access – every time.

Many stations provide a location for securing the prisoner in a common area such as a squad room. Because officers use this room for day-to-day activities, it is too easy to become complacent and leave items within arm’s reach. Secure all office supplies, scissors, paper clips and pens. Ensure that any shelves that hold officer “patrol bags” are nowhere near your prisoner.

Restraining your prisoner at all times not only protects you from a potential assault but also keeps him or her in the building. Use cuffing rails, chains or rings whenever possible, and handcuffs when moving the person from place to place within the building. Don’t assume that someone won’t try to make a break for the door the moment the cuffs come off.

Whenever a prisoner is not secured, such as during fingerprinting or interviewing, NEVER turn your back or allow yourself to become distracted. Secure your weapons. If you need to leave the room for a phone call or some other purpose, always ensure another officer is available to take over, otherwise restrain your prisoner and return them to the cuffing rail. Reasonable requests for water and restroom breaks should be granted; however, an officer must be constantly aware of the risks for escape/assault.

Maintaining direct, continuous, personal supervision of your prisoner cannot be accomplished by audio monitoring or video monitoring from another part of the building. Remember, the idea is for you to be able to immediately intercede in any escape attempt, assault or attempt by prisoners to harm themselves.

The moment you or other officers take your eyes off of a prisoner, you cannot personally attest to whether the person has freed themselves from restraints or armed themselves, waiting for your return. Multiple prisoners should never be left alone together.

A sobering example from 2003 demonstrates why adherence to the detention triad is so important. In training sessions across the nation, many officers have seen the video of a suspect in custody for a violent crime being brought into a police interview room unrestrained and subsequently left alone. The video also captures the suspect retrieving a .45 caliber pistol from his waistband and then using it to commit suicide. Fortunately, the individual chose not to harm anyone else, only himself.

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Examples like the above suicide – or even the 1998 Florida incident where a suspect being transported disarmed and murdered two detectives – often disappear into the archives of law enforcement training. The next generation of trainers may not even be familiar with these powerful lessons related to prisoner security or the possible factors that led to a loss of control. It is important for trainers to continue learning about past events for the future safety of our officers.

Let’s be honest. Have you or someone you know ever relaxed your standards with a prisoner as a way to build a rapport for later questioning? Did that influence how the subject was restrained or transported? While building rapport can make an encounter less stressful, always consider the danger to yourself, your suspect, and the public. When you circumvent existing policy out of convenience, or to illicit cooperation in an investigation, you create a loss of control that others may have to fight later to regain.

When we consider the risks associated with transporting prisoners, we often overlook the “secondary” transport scenario. Secondary transport is when a known arrestee is being returned to your custody after an extended period, or when a new prisoner is being transferred to you for continued transport to a final destination. In these situations, it is easy to assume a cooperative prisoner will continue to be so.

It’s also easy to believe that other law enforcement or corrections officers were thorough with their searches of the prisoner with whom you are about to share a vehicle. Both assumptions could prove to be fatal. Because your vehicle has now become a temporary detention facility, the detention triad – search, restrain and watch – should apply the same as if that person were seated at your station.

In situations when you are receiving a transferred prisoner, ask the other officer if the subject has been searched, and then search that prisoner regardless of the answer. Don’t be offended if this happens to you.

There are occasions where a prisoner must be released to our custody for transport to court proceedings. When preparing for transport, ask yourself: “What’s happened between then (initial arrest, custody, confinement) and now?” The answer is time. The prisoner has had time to think, time to ponder his or her future, time to plot an escape or time to arrange for an ambush.

Don’t write these situations off as mere Hollywood scenarios. Search, restrain and observe your prisoner. Conduct mental crisis rehearsals and maintain situational awareness. Never transport alone if personnel are available to assist.

Non-secure facilities

Has this ever happened to you? You’ve obtained a release for a prisoner, retrieved that person from state or county prison, and transported them to a local court for an appearance. As you arrive in the parking lot, you observe several of your prisoner’s family members and friends waiting outside the building for an opportunity to speak to their loved one. Even before exiting your vehicle, what steps will you take to maintain control of the situation? If you don’t observe anyone in the lot, will you still check your surroundings before you let your prisoner out of temporary detention?

Facilities such as local courts and hospitals should be considered non-secure and vulnerable to escape attempts or assaults. It is not always easy for medical or legal personnel to understand the need for continued restraint of a prisoner in certain circumstances. Do not remove handcuffs/restraints unless instructed to do so by authorized court or medical personnel, such as a judge or an attending physician. Make every effort to notify them if your prisoner is considered a high-security risk, and ensure additional officers are available to assist.

If you must be in a confined space with a prisoner, such as an exam room or court conference room, watch your body positioning and maintain situational awareness. Stay between the prisoner and the door. If possible, avoid confined spaces altogether. You don’t want to fight in a phone booth. Even a handcuffed prisoner can still disarm you.

Control interactions with family members and friends. Lower courts and medical facilities likely do not practice the same screening process that county or federal courthouses require. Be aware that a prisoner may have an emotional reaction to a court decision that could result in a situation quickly getting out of control. Always re-search any prisoner who is returned to your custody after a court proceeding or medical exam.

Where did you learn that?

In one of his many insightful articles, law enforcement trainer Dave Smith cautions on the deadly dangers of detraining. I would say that a lot of escapes or assaults by prisoners could be avoided if officers, prior to doing anything police-related, simply ask themselves “Where did I learn that?” If it wasn’t something you learned from a regulation manual or it can’t be attributed to some past sanctioned law enforcement training…well then, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Ignore the “detrainers.” Avoid peer pressure to do things the “real” way, and instead, do them the “right” way. Ask for assistance in transporting and maintaining custody of your prisoner and return the favor. Help your fellow officers with searching and help with security. Oh, and by the way, don’t poke your buddy’s prisoner. You know that officer – the one who has nothing to do with your case or your calm prisoner and who can still enter a squad room and within seconds have everyone involved in a scrum. Don’t be that officer.

When transporting, don’t ignore the warning signs. If a prisoner has made previous attempts to flee, has resisted arrest, has refused to be placed at a tactical disadvantage, or otherwise indicated that they are an assault or escape risk, take the necessary steps to ensure you maintain control.

If, during transport, you observe behaviors that suggest the suspect is making suspicious or furtive movements, immediately stop and evaluate the situation. Call for back-up if alone, and search, restrain and watch your prisoner until back-up arrives. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted. Ever. Was that distraction part of your prisoner’s plan?

Supervisors bear the responsibility to immediately correct lackadaisical attitudes regarding prisoner security and transportation, whether it’s personally observed or brought to their attention. Even when escapes or assaults are thwarted, officers don’t typically get a pat on the back when the attempts were the result of improper security measures or ignored regulations.

In some situations, it may be appropriate to sit down with the officer and review agency policy. Remedial action could include hands-on training in handcuffing or referral for additional skills review.

Supervisors also bear the responsibility of ensuring that prisoner detention areas, as well as patrol vehicles, are checked regularly for discarded contraband or any item that could be used as a weapon or implement of escape.

Be a freak

When it comes to prisoner security, from arrest to arraignment, from confinement to court, and all points in between, take ownership of the world around you. Be a control freak. Control the environment. Control the people. Think tactically and follow the detention triad. Take charge of your prisoner and maintain that control over him or her as if your life depended on it. It just might.

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Sergeant (Ret.) Robert Bemis retired in 2017 as a supervisor in the Operational Training Division at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Hershey. With over 30 years of law enforcement experience, Sgt. Bemis spent more than a decade as a trainer specializing in officer safety, self-defense and civil disorder tactics. He is the author of Forged in Scars & Stripes: A Trooper’s Victory Over Critical Injury. Sgt. Bemis is currently the Director of Training at Wrap Reality, a virtual reality training solution for law enforcement and corrections.