Auditor, Sheriff's Department Disagree on Handcuffing Best Practices

Auditor, Sheriff's Department Disagree on Handcuffing Best Practices
According to a city audit released Thursday, March 21, the Denver Sheriff Department's handcuffing practices are putting staff, inmates and the public at risk.

Denver's auditor Timothy O'Brien takes particular issue with the department's handcuffing of high-risk detainees in front of their bodies, which he says goes against the national trend of handcuffing detainees behind their backs. Sheriff Patrick Firman disagrees with his take.

"Our disagreement with the auditor is that there is no national standard practice for restraining. There are no agencies that put out 'these are best practices when restraining inmates,'" says Firman.

The audit cites two examples of unsafe situations that arose from detainees being restrained in front of their bodies or not being restrained at all. In one situation, an inmate handcuffed in front of his body grabbed documents from a deputy's hand and then grabbed his wrist, which led to a use-of-force incident. In another instance, a deputy didn't handcuff an inmate being transported out of his cell "because the deputy did not think the inmate displayed any intention to resist." Not only did he resist, he assaulted the deputy and injured two others in the process.

The department once required all detainees to be handcuffed behind their backs, but moved away from that policy several years ago to give deputies more flexibility, according to Firman.

"We restrain in the least restrictive way possible," says Firman. "We understand that there are so many different variables and situations that we can’t cover a policy that covers them all."

According to Kenny Sanders, an expert in law enforcement and correction procedures, the right way for handcuffing detainees depends on the situation and risk level.

"The best practice for inside the jail for an inmate that is not assaultive toward staff is to handcuff him in front. If he is assaultive to the staff, then best practice is to handcuff from behind," says Sanders, a former captain of a Louisiana sheriff's office who has testified about correctional facility procedures in numerous court cases.

Sanders say that handcuffed detainees being transported within a jail should also have ankle restraints, or a chain linking him to other detainees if there are multiple people being moved at once, much like the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office does when transporting detainees outside a jail.

As a general rule, however, Arapahoe County Sheriff's deputies handcuff detainees behind their backs when they're being transported within the jail. Pregnant women are handcuffed from the front, so that if they fall they won't land directly on their bellies.

"There are other agencies that do things differently," Firman acknowledges. "We don’t necessarily think that because of a lot of other agencies are doing something one way that we need to follow suit."

The Denver Sheriff Department has a checkered past when it comes to detainee well-being. In both 2010 and 2015, a detainee died while in sheriff custody.

After investigating the 2015 death, which cost the city $4.65 million in legal settlements, the Office of the Independent Monitor recommended in March 2018 that investigations into alleged misconduct in the department be handled by a civilian-controlled agency. That recommendation is coming to fruition soon: The Public Integrity Division, a civilian-staffed oversight group, will begin handling these types of investigations by July.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.