Sonia Sotomayor could declare martial law on Kevin Orcutt's nunchaku

Sergeant Kevin Orcutt stands over me: "Give me your arm, please."

He says it the way stereotypical cops talk, in a monotone demand with just enough polite formality to seem like a request. I know his goal is to handcuff me, so I've clenched my body into a ball. Face to the ground, arms crossed, legs wrapped close. Like a rock, I think. You can't handcuff a rock.

Orcutt crouches and threads one end of a nunchaku under my right arm. He clamps both ends together and twists. "Arm, please, arm, please, arm, arm, arm," he says. The hard polycarbonate plastic presses into the bone and sensitive muscle beneath my biceps. I smash my face against the floor to muffle a groan. The two strands of nylon cord connecting the sticks of the nunchaku enable Orcutt to pull my arm out from under me. The pain increases as he cranks upward. Rock, meet forklift. Soon I unlock my legs and rise to my knees. He uses the nunchaku to direct my arm around my back. After I bring my other wrist around, he releases the pressure. I exhale.

Back in the 1980s, Kevin Orcutt demonstrated the efficacy of his nunchaku for a promotional brochure — but Sonia Sotomayor isn't convinced.
Back in the 1980s, Kevin Orcutt demonstrated the efficacy of his nunchaku for a promotional brochure — but Sonia Sotomayor isn't convinced.
Back in the 1980s, Kevin Orcutt demonstrated the efficacy of his nunchaku for a promotional brochure
Back in the 1980s, Kevin Orcutt demonstrated the efficacy of his nunchaku for a promotional brochure

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Watch the author take a nunchaku beating on the Latest Word blog at westword.com.

Orcutt laughs and slaps my shoulder. "All I'm doing is using torque," he explains, turning the device in the air.

Seen from a safe distance, the Orcutt Police Nunchaku, or OPN, looks much the same as the traditional Japanese martial arts weapon known as the nunchaku — or "nunchucks," "chuka sticks" and the ultra-colloquial "numchucks" — that unleashed such kung fu fury in 1970s Bruce Lee films. But rather than spinning, flailing and whacking whole gangs of assailants into unconsciousness, a person wielding an OPN is using it for "restraint control" and "pain compliance" on uncooperative suspects or inmates.

So instead of numchucks, think nutcrackers.

"I'm using the tool to wrap and latch onto your limbs," explains Orcutt, this time demonstrating on one of my ankles. "You rotate it here and it accelerates the pressure, causing pretty effective pain. And even if it didn't cause a lot of pain, you're not going anywhere. You can't get up, you can't swing, you can't kick. I really eliminate a lot of your responses. And once again," he says, initiating the torque, "I want your arms. Arms, arms, arms, arms."

He doesn't even have to say "please" this time.

A black belt in jukado, Orcutt was a rookie cop in Thornton almost three decades ago when he got the idea to create the OPN as a police tool. Since then, his company has supplied an estimated 20,000 OPNs to law-enforcement agencies from California to Florida. In Denver, this specialized nunchaku can be spotted doing everything from controlling belligerent drunks in LoDo to shepherding inmates through the corridors of the overcrowded county jail.


Watch the Westword video footnote: "Enter the Nunchaku" from Westwordy on Vimeo.


When used correctly, the OPN can inflict pain ranging from mild to intense. For Orcutt, however, the nunchaku is not a weapon, but a "tool" or "device" that enables an officer to get immediate control over a suspect and maintain it. This means fewer injuries to officers and suspects during struggles, fewer situations where Tasers and guns get drawn, and fewer court cases involving, say, videotapes of cops beating a man with batons on the side of a road.

"A baton is not generally used as a control device. The training [the officers] had with the baton was for impact techniques," he says of the 1991 incident involving Rodney King and Los Angeles cops. "So the idea of control was not in their thought process; it was, 'Until you comply, we beat.'" If OPNs had been used to subdue King, the infamous videotape that began the sequence of events leading to the L.A. riots would instead have shown officers using their training to "scoop an ankle, fold a leg and pin him. And that would have been the end of it," Orcutt insists.

Yet Orcutt's own invention is not without controversy. In the early '90s, the nunchaku was the focus of several civil-rights lawsuits filed by anti-abortion demonstrators in California, who claimed they'd suffered excessive pain and injury when police used OPNs to remove the protesters blockading abortion clinics. But no court has ever found that the OPN causes lasting injury, "and no one has ever died from an OPN," notes Orcutt. "You're not hearing about lawsuits. You're not hearing about people dying, because the OPN is very low-profile as a tool. If police were out there swinging around like Bruce Lee, there would be articles, lawsuits and complaints. And there just isn't."

But after May 26, when President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court, you were suddenly hearing a lot about the nunchaku.

During Sotomayor's July 14 confirmation hearing, Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, decided to get tough with her about the Second Amendment and referenced a ruling she'd made in December as part of a panel of federal judges on the U.S. Second Court of Appeals. Didn't her decision in Maloney v. Cuomo mean that any state or municipality could create its own complete ban of a weapon?

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