Orcutt began adapting the method to police work, making the wrap just one step in a process that ended with handcuffing. The crimp provided by the nunchaku could also serve as what police call a "come-along" tool to direct detainees from one place to another. He shared his ideas with the Thornton police chief, who allowed him to do a study with fellow officers using a prototype nunchaku. Orcutt's design featured raised bands of plastic on each stick and a length of cord that allowed for a locking, "wrap-around effect" on a wrist or ankle.

The device worked so well, the Thornton PD decided to issue it to all officers. In 1984, Orcutt got a patent for his invention, found investors and began marketing the device to other law-enforcement agencies. Unlike the popular side-handle baton, the OPN could be attached to a belt — a big advantage for cops getting in and out of cars all day.

In 1988, the San Diego Police Department started its own study of the OPN. After three months, the officers testing it reported 312 uses for the OPN, only ten of which involved impact. Police administrators, who were looking for ways to reduce controversial use-of-force lawsuits, were so pleased that they canceled the last month of the study and began training all their officers in how to use the OPN.

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


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

The OPN came in handy when the San Diego police had to deal with members of the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which had started a national campaign to disrupt abortion clinics through passive resistance. As many as 300 protesters would turn their bodies into a blockade, shutting off clinic entrances and ignoring police orders to vacate. It was a tactic taken straight from the books of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi: If police try to remove you, go limp; if they hit you, don't strike back. Meet their violence with non-violence. As the civil rights and anti-war protests of the '60s and '70s had showed, one stark image of a cop clubbing a peaceful demonstrator could bring more attention and sympathy to a cause than a thousand letters to the editor. The Operation Rescue protests presented police departments not just with a political challenge, but a logistical one: How do you physically remove 300 limp bodies without officers injuring their backs and necks from sheer lifting alone? The potential workers' comp claims alone seemed daunting.

The answer appeared on the front page of the April 11, 1989, San Diego Union-Tribune: a photo of officers using OPNs leading anti-abortion protesters away. The next day, Orcutt got a call from the Los Angeles Police Department; in L.A., crowds of 2,000 anti-abortion demonstrators were greasing their bodies with oil and taking muscle relaxants to thwart any attempt to remove them from clinic grounds. Orcutt sent a batch of OPNs to L.A., too. Soon he was talking about his invention in the pages of People magazine and during a live appearance on CBS This Morning. At one point, he was supplying his nunchaku to more than 200 agencies.

But the OPN had its critics, too. A Catholic bishop called the nunchaku a "torture device." One morning, Orcutt remembers, he was flipping through the TV channels when he caught televangelist Pat Robertson calling the OPN "the devil's tool." By January 1990, the debate over the use of the nunchaku had turned traditional political alliances on their heads. Pro-choice liberals, who once might have experienced the brunt force of the police during earlier demonstrations, were suddenly cheering on officers from the sidelines of anti-abortion demonstrations. A meeting of the California ACLU chapters erupted into a raucous debate when they couldn't reach consensus on whether Orcutt's nunchaku fit within their guidelines. Meanwhile, conservatives were lashing out at police departments for their brutality against Operation Rescue demonstrators. Then-senator William Armstrong (now the president of Colorado Christian University) decried the pain-compliance tactics as "something we expect to hear about in Nicaragua or Nazi Germany — but not in the United States of America." The conservative Coloradan introduced a bill that allowed the federal government to withhold funds from cities that didn't adopt policies prohibiting the use of excessive force by law-enforcement agencies against individuals engaged in non-violent civil-rights demonstrations; President George Bush signed it into law in 1989.

Operation Rescue filed federal lawsuits against both San Diego and Los Angeles on the grounds that the pain-compliance tactics used by their police departments constituted excessive force; some protesters claimed they had suffered lasting pain and injury from use of the OPN. The cases were watched closely by police departments and civil-rights attorneys across the country, since they dealt with a legal question that had not yet been determined by the courts: Could police inflict pain on non-violent individuals during arrests? Law-enforcement policy on officer use-of-force had always been measured against the yardstick of justification. Cops could legally kill, for example, but only if they perceived their lives to be in danger. They could punch a suspect in the nose, but only if that suspect was threatening the officer with his fists. As the threat level declined, so did the scale of justified force. So what about when the lawbreaker posed no physical threat to an officer but was actively resisting by becoming passive and limp?

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