Police trainer Kevin Kelleher described his first thought when he heard the circumstances of Jamar Clark’s death: “They handcuffed him after they shot him.”
That’s because it’s such a common practice.
It’s standard procedure for officers at law enforcement agencies across the country to handcuff a person after shooting them or using some other type of force such as Tasers. Those incapacitated or killed by use of force may lie that way for hours, unless the handcuffs are removed for medical treatment.
A Star Tribune review of records on dozens of people across Minnesota who died in encounters with law enforcement shows it’s common for officers to follow their use of force with handcuffs.
The purpose: To secure the scene.“Twelve seconds afterward we don’t know the person’s dead,” said Kelleher, a Minnesota cop for 27 years and owner of Duluth-based Field Training Solutions. “I’ve had it happen when someone has pretended to be unconscious, luring you in, and once you’ve closed the distance, they come at you.”
Whether Clark was handcuffed at the time he was shot to death by Minneapolis police Nov. 15 has emerged as a central and still unsettled question. Witnesses say they saw Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man, lying on the ground in handcuffs in north Minneapolis just after police fired. Minneapolis police have repeatedly said Clark was not in handcuffs when officers shot him.
The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), running one of three investigations into Clark’s death, has said that handcuffs were at the scene. Initially the BCA said Clark was not handcuffed when officers shot. Later it said agents were working to determine whether the handcuffs were on Clark.
There is no discussion of handcuffing downed suspects in the MPD Policy & Procedure Manual. Minneapolis police spokesman Scott Seroka said it is not standard procedure to do so, but noted that he was speaking generally and could not comment on any specific case.
“Each case is individual,” Seroka said in an e-mail. “An officer may cuff a suspect that he or she still deems as a threat.”
The handcuffing is a practice most civilians may be unfamiliar with, and it strikes some as absurd.
“Why would you handcuff someone? For one thing, it hampers medical care,” said Michelle Gross, president of Twin Cities-based Communities United Against Police Brutality. Gross called it “almost hypervigilance.” “It’s particularly egregious if someone is critically injured … it’s so completely inappropriate. Why aren’t you focused on getting medical attention?”
There are no state or federal rules on handcuffing downed suspects. Each jurisdiction has its own practices, said former officer Nathan Gove, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards & Training, a state agency focused on licensing, education and training.
At Hennepin Technical College, which trains about half of Minnesota’s police officers, students are trained that handcuffing a suspect even after use of force is a best practice, said Mylan Masson, a former Minneapolis police officer and director of the college’s law enforcement and criminal justice education center.
“First you want to make sure the scene is safe, then you render aid,” she said.
In 2012, Police Chiefs magazine ran an article summarizing key lessons drawn from a U.S. Bureau of Justice project on increasing officer safety. Lesson Number 8: “Handcuff all downed suspects.” It notes that “some human beings have a remarkable capacity to survive gunshot wounds.”
‘Just how it’s done’
Although it’s not written in any manual, the practice has long been taught in training for Roseville officers, said Police Chief Rick Mathwig. “That’s just how it’s done.”
It’s not a written rule for Apple Valley police either, but Capt. John Bermel said the situations are dynamic and it’s up to officers to control the situation and suspect; handcuffing a suspect before medical aid is important, he said, because officers don’t know the person’s condition.
“The last thing you want is the person to come to and be assaultive,” Bermel said, adding that an officer would likely handcuff a suspect even after lesser use of force such as tackling a person to the ground. “They may or may not resist after the tackle. We don’t want to make any situation worse.”
Kelleher, the trainer, said there’s another reason to leave the handcuffs on someone who’s obviously dead: to avoid disturbing the scene and potentially tainting an investigation.
“You can’t undo stuff,” Kelleher said. “You should not undo what you’ve done.”
A recent pattern
Recent police shootings show how common it is for police to handcuff a person after deadly force.
In St. Louis Park in 2013, officers handcuffed Zheng Diao, an elderly dementia patient with Parkinson’s disease who was holding a knife and scissors, after they used a Taser on him and he fell to the floor. Diao died.
In 2012, Apple Valley police were called to a domestic dispute when Carl Tatum, 48, pulled a handgun from a sofa. According to police, Tatum fired at them and they fired back. Officers handcuffed Tatum as he lay on the floor before performing CPR on him. Tatum later died.
That same year, Chisago County deputies and North Branch police responded to a domestic disturbance complaint, and were told Robert Aho, 46, had a loaded firearm and had shot a round off inside a home. While police were there, Aho left the home through the garage with two long guns. Police said he ignored several commands to drop the guns, so they shot him. They immediately handcuffed him before giving him first aid; Aho was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Also in 2012, Richfield officers shot Jeff O’Connor, 25, when he refused to drop a knife. Officers had used a Taser and then shot O’Connor, handcuffed him behind his back and called for medical attention.
And in 2014, officers from the State Patrol, Chaska and Carver County immediately handcuffed a couple who were shot dead after a high-speed chase. Officers checked their pockets for weapons and then tried to render aid.
“Is that common practice that after any type of use-of-force incident for you or for your agency that you will handcuff somebody … to try to control that event?” a state investigator later asked an officer as part of the BCA’s inquiry into the shooting.
Yes, the officer answered.