By Donna Rogers, Editor-in-Chief
Thirty-six year old Mobile Police Officer Steven Green was fatally stabbed on February 3, 2012, by a small 3-inch knife that authorities believe was hidden on the robbery suspect Lawrence Wallace Jr. hours after his arrest while he was being transported from police headquarters to the Mobile County Metro Jail.
Wallace had been charged earlier that morning with attempted robbery and arson. Somewhere between the police station and the jail he managed to open his handcuffs and escape. When they arrived in the Jail’s sallyport, he attacked the officer as he opened the back door of the cruiser.
After overtaking and killing Green with the knife, he stole the officer’s gun and cruiser and drove through the sallyport/ garage door. In an ensuing gunfight, the suspect eventually injured another officer and was killed. A handcuff key was found in his shoe.
What was interesting was a diamond-shaped medallion on a long chain that Wallace was wearing and that he was shown touching on news videotape even though his hands were cuffed behind his back. While the police chief noted at the time: “We believe the handcuff key was concealed somewhere on his body. We don’t know where. We may never know where.” —there was speculation that the necklace could have held the key.
The necklace was so interesting to Michael Hendricks, a 17-year law enforcement and 33-year EMS veteran and instructor, that it sparked an idea to create a PowerPoint training presentation for a meeting of the International Conference of Police Chaplains, of which he remains an active member. (At one point in his career, Hendricks had also worked as a self-employed locksmith.) The presentation was eventually nominated by the National Law Enforcement Memorial as a Top Safety Briefing.
In his research, Hendricks says he found a total of nearly 60 commercially-produced (note: not self-fabricated) handcuff keys of various design. He points out that suspects deploy necklaces, rings and other jewelry to conceal handcuff keys. Non metallic keys are hidden and sewn into underwear and other clothing. They are molded onto shoelace tips and used as extensions on zipper pulls. One of the latest crazes, he relays, is the TIHK (for tiny inconspicuous handcuff key) found on the Internet from the TIHK Co., advertised for $12 (under an anti-government marketing ploy cautioning readers not to permit their rights be taken away).
Hendricks tells this writer that the Mil-spec Plastics HydaKey Covert Handcuff Key appears to be an extra button on top of clothing, but a key is securely attached underneath. Further, Shomer-Tec, purportedly a military and law enforcement site, sells boot lace covert handcuff keys for $15 and a handcuff shim pick for $3.
Many are James Bond-like, Hendricks comments, and can be hidden in plain sight. This includes ink pen caps where the tail is remanufactured into a key, or a pen that’s spring loaded to reveal a key. The $29.95 LockWrite Pen has a 303 stainless steel machined integrated handcuff key on the end. The company’s tag line is: Lock ‘em up and write ‘em up!
There’s no end to these clandestine picking tools. They include foldable knives such as the Gerber or Leathermen multi-tool, which can be taken apart easily to be fitted with a key; a realistic-looking coin that hides a key; a survivalist belt that contains a handcuff lock opener; and even a zipper on a high-heel shoe that, you guessed it, has a key on the pull.
The Anti-Kidnapping Band from Gearward.com, a watch band that can be had for $25, conceals a ceramic blade, handcuff key and rope. It is touted to permit the wearer to escape from rope, duct tape, zip ties and handcuffs.
The culmination, Hendricks points out, is a metal card from Sparrows Lock Picks in the shape and form of a credit card that tucks into the wallet. Called the CHAOS card, it comes with eight tiny tools that punch-out, including a lock pick, a flat handcuff key and “a stabby thing.” (The web site notes in an ominous way: ”If you are questioning if this really is a "stabby thing" ask a Prison Guard for their opinion.”
One way to overcome these issues is of course with proper training regarding safety procedures. In addition, proper tools can help, even something as simple as well constructed and properly fitting handcuffs, including those that are fitted with higher security locks.
The BOA Handcuff Co. in Huntington, N.Y., offers high security upgraded handcuffs, leg irons and waist chains. A recent visit to the headquarters revealed handcuffs, waist chains and other sundry hardware piled on workbenches, on shelves and in boxes on the floor waiting for the restraints to be retrofitted for various departments around the country including the New York City DOC.
Owner and president Alan Lurie, who started in the locksmithing business and founded this niche business 20 years ago, retrofits the handcuffs from others such as Peerless and Smith & Wesson with custom-made cylinders from companies like Medeco or ASSA. These individual keys are obviously much higher security than the simpler standard metal keys that come with the cuffs. These retrofitted restraints have pick and bump resistant cylinders, restricted keyways and controlled key duplication. The anti-shim model contains a deadbolt. He relates that “a couple hundred agencies” have examples of his retrofits in use.
In addition to commercially made keys, inmates have been known to make keys with common instruments they can dig up such as with pens or built into the aglet (the plastic reinforced end) of their shoelace. Of course, it is not unheard of to swipe the handcuff key of their custodians.
“Maintaining key control is really important,” says Lurie. Lost and duplicate keys are dangerous to corrections officers, which goes without saying in the case of a high level felon. But even with low level offenders, he points out, you don’t know when and in what instance they may cross the line. With BOA equipment, he stresses, all COs have a registered key to keep careful inventory, and BOA alone keeps control of the blanks. Duplicates are only made with proper permission.
Typically departments have only one key code for all their handcuffs, but it is possible to have up to 1,000 codes, Lurie says. Rikers, for example, has traditionally had two separate key codes, he explains, and they have recently required a number of additional codes for the Seg Unit.
Not only does a poorly constructed handcuff impact security but it can also cause manpower and facility backups. For example, Lurie furthers, with some 1,500 transports to courts, hospitals and upstate facilities on a given day in New York City, weakly constructed hardware that is difficult to operate can “jam up the court system” if prisoners can’t quickly be released from their hardware.
Peerless Handcuff Company, which was founded a 100 years ago and remains a family business, carries a lifetime guarantee that covers manufacturer defects. Peter Gill, vice president, whose great grandfather created the West Springfield, Massachusetts business, explains that they take back cuffs that get “worn and beat on” by high-use customers and repair them free of charge. He describes that cuffs come back that have been picked or shimmed, the lock areas are returned bent and “have bits of metal, paper clips and who knows what jammed in there.”
Peerless offers a full line of restraints including chain link handcuffs, hinged handcuffs, oversize handcuffs, leg irons, waist chains and color plated restraints. All of our products are designed to meet and exceed the tough U.S. National Institute of Justice standards for strength and quality, the maker states. And all Peerless products are backed by a lifetime warranty for manufacturer defects.
For prisoner transport operations, Gill recommends Peerless’ High Security line for transport including the Chain Link handcuff with optional waist chain and optional MEDECO or ASSA Desmo high security lock system and aluminum housing, and the High Security Leg Iron.
As noted, a small percentage of Peerless handcuffs are specified by agencies to be retrofitted by BOA with the special heavy-duty cylinder locks. The range of departments specifying the extra layer of security varies widely, he says, “from very small to very large departments.” For instance, small rural ones may have to transport longer distances or may not have the “tricked out vans,” he says. Larger departments may require them due to a higher volume of violent prisoners. Some departments are just moving inmates with cruisers, he notes. Cuff retrofitting provides a “relatively inexpensive way of providing safety.”
Gill furthers, we also offer custom product to use in instances where departments have a van or bus in which they move a group of prisoners at one time—it includes a transport chain for a line of 2, 4, 6, 8 people. We do this quite regularly in various configurations, he says.
For the first time ever, Gill adds, the company is conducting a voluntary program to repair certain of its 700 and 801 series restraints. Peerless is replacing the spring to ensure that the restraints meet their rigorous standards. A while back, he tells us, a whole batch of parts had not been manufactured well and Peerless offered all handcuffs purchased to be upgraded with a better spring design.
If a little more zip in your wrist and ankle restraints is needed, the Stun-Cuff may be a good choice. This wireless stun device from Myers Enterprises, Inc. is a less than lethal technology designed to keep violent prisoners under control. Used in both court and in transport, its use as “a deterrent is its single best effect,” emphasizes company owner Brad Myers.
Desperate criminals resort to extreme measures, notes the Stun-Cuff user manual. “There is always danger when dealing with a prisoner,” says Myers. The electronic device is used when a prisoner has been shown to be violent, and there’s a possibility they will harm others or cause injury to themselves, he says. Which of course can be the case in many transport instances. (Unfortunately it is difficult to know which of those will need or not need it.)
Of course it comes with a price tag steeper than a handcuff (an institutional single cuff unit costs $1,650) but it provides virtually unrivalled prisoner compliance and officer safety. It is available in several versions which can be used for single prisoner and for up to nine prisoners with a single officer in charge. Myers points out that it has been safe to use. There has been no litigation in 11 years of sales.
“Inmate transport is one of the most dangerous parts of the officer’s job,” contends Tim Donovan, associate product manager, Bob Barker Company. “Transporting inmates puts the officer in a vulnerable position especially when loading and unloading inmates.” This is so because, even though inmates are cuffed and shackled, officers are severely outnumbered. In fact, he says, two officers (and sometimes only one) are transporting numerous inmates, leaving the officers in a disadvantageous position.
A fully-equipped van specifically created for the purpose has the advantage of adding a layer of safety to a transport. The VanCell Elite from Bob Barker, contains up to four segregation compartments (it is PREA compliant), and provides improved visibility for greater officer security. Available in either 9 or 13 seats, it comes standard with a four-camera monitoring system (with optional DVR) as well as officer controlled visibility through both rear and side doors. Rear vent holes provide sight lines for viewing as well as for application of pepper spray. For added safety it also includes lockable storage/gun locker space. The VanCell insert fits both low- and mid-roof Ford and Chevy cargo vans. Donovan explains that Bob Barker provides training to the agency after purchase to ensure they’re comfortable with all of the features of the unit, in order to uphold the safety of their officers.
All in all, we would probably all agree, it’s a dangerous world out there when it comes to inmate transport. Hendricks says he carries the Tool Logic SL Pro 4 Series Folding Knife Multi-tool plus Handcuff Key not so much because he worries about having to escape from handcuffs. “I wear it in case of an instance that provides a teaching moment,” he says, “to show officers this is very real.”
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