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

Page 4 of 7

Orcutt majored in law-enforcement studies at Metropolitan State College of Denver, then went on to the police academy and a brief stint with the Wheat Ridge Police Department before transferring to the Thornton Police Department. All along, he continued with his martial arts training — and it gave him some ideas for how police work could be improved.

"When I finally got on the street, I would see these confrontations with officers trying to get someone in cuffs," he recalls. It seemed to him that there was no real process, other than a broad notion that the individual should be brought to the ground. But once there, the event commonly became a "pig pile," with officers struggling to grab legs and arms. "And because you usually had more officers than bad guys, the officers generally won," he adds. "But that doesn't mean you didn't have twisted knees, sprains, scrapes and other injuries."

The nunchaku might provide a way to avoid those problems, Orcutt thought, and he checked out every book in the library he could find. While scholars agree that the weapon emerged in Japan in the seventeenth century, its precise origin is still a matter of debate. Popular belief holds that the nunchaku got its start as either horse bridles or flails for threshing rice that were adapted into weapons by residents of Okinawa after samurai occupiers banned traditional arms. The martial arts books that Orcutt consulted showed nunchaku primarily being used for striking an adversary at close range. There were a few examples of "wrist wraps" to trap an opponent, but that was where the tactic stopped; there was no follow-through.

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.

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jared Jacang Maher