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The legend of the blue handcuffs: A lesson for trainers

You may train hundreds or thousands of officers in your career – strive to leave each student with some gem that will make you a positive example


“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” — William Arthur Ward

I met John when we both worked in the Intelligence Bureau of a large state police agency. His name isn’t really John, but his covert status requires the “John Doe” moniker. He was an intelligence analyst in training and I was one of the “old” guys who came there with years of police experience. I helped him understand the street significance of the data he was analyzing and he helped the old dog learn a few new tricks about computers.

The boy had a talent for tickling the database searches just right to find things others missed. John had a knack for finding people who didn’t want to be found.

At an intel-sharing meeting, someone bragged up John’s ability to sniff folks out and the Special Agent in Charge of the local FBI office jotted down a name and some identifiers. He handed the note to John with a challenge: find this guy, we’ve got a warrant for him and he’s like a ghost. John quickly developed a good lead and the FBI nabbed its guy. The FBI guy was so impressed that within a few short months John was at Quantico in a Special Agent class.

I remember talking to John about accepting the FBI’s offer. He had a wife and two babies at home and wasn’t sure he wanted a job where he would be carrying a gun and taking the risk of not coming home to them. We talked about the opportunity a couple of times and John was eventually convinced. At the time I thought I was just answering his questions and giving free advice. Apparently, I did more.

There was something about John that caught my eye. He was more than just a young guy about to enter the law enforcement profession. I wanted to give him something before he left for Quantico – some sage piece of advice or tangible thing he could use in his new career. The “gift” was mulled over in my head for several days until a good idea finally formed. I’d give him my old, blue steel handcuffs. I didn’t need them anymore, and they were a pain to keep clean and oiled so they wouldn’t rust.

“I’ll trade you for that new, shiny pair of nickel-plated cuffs you’ve got”

I had been a young cop starting out as a reserve officer. One night I commented about another officer’s blued handcuffs; “I’ve seen ‘em in catalogs, but I’ve never seen anyone carrying any.” The cop pulled the blue cuffs out of his belt case and handed them to me. As I clicked the center loop through it was obvious they’d seen much use. The cop told me, “I’ve had ‘em for several years – got ‘em from a friend on the sheriff’s department and he said a trooper bought ‘em new quite a while ago.”

You must realize that when I started, almost every cop in my locale carried a blued steel gun and most of those had a Smith & Wesson logo. The locals generally had a .357 Magnum like mine, but some older guys still carried .38s. A few had S&W 9mm Model 39s like the troopers carried. So, that old set of blued S&W handcuffs caught my eye, and I guess it showed.

The cop said, “If you like ‘em, I’ll trade you for that new, shiny pair of nickel-plated cuffs you’ve got...they’d be a damn sight easier to keep from rusting.” I handed him the nickel cuffs and we each walked away convinced we’d got the best end of the deal.

“Use ‘em on some guy you arrest as an FBI agent”

The blue handcuffs stayed with me throughout my career. They did require some oil, and occasionally even a touch up with steel wool and cold blue on a little spot of rust, but I liked the idea that the old cuffs had some tradition to them. I bet they could have told some great squad room stories.

My career took me to the wild country of Wyoming, where I spent a few tense moments one night with two customers, no backup, and no way to get to the spare set of cuffs hanging on the spotlight handle. The next day I ordered a double handcuff case so I could carry two sets all the time. But the blue ones were still “first up” when I needed ‘em. As an investigator, they usually hung over the back of my belt.

On John’s last day before going to the FBI, I met him in the parking lot and said I wanted him to do something for me. I handed him the old blue cuffs and told him the story of how I got ‘em. I told him they’d seen a lot of country and been used by a city cop, a county deputy and a state trooper. I told John the old handcuffs needed to serve a federal agent to complete their career.

“Use ‘em on some guy you arrest as an FBI agent,” I told him. Then the cuff’s story would have their final chapter. John might have had a tear in his eye as he looked at those beat-up old handcuffs that day, but I’ll only admit to a lump in my throat.

By now you’re wondering how this silly story about a pair of handcuffs can serve as a lesson for trainers, as I alluded to in the title. Well, here’s the lesson I learned last week when John called.

He was back for a family visit, but couldn’t get free to meet me for lunch. So, we talked on the phone for a while. He’s been out there doing it for real. John told me of a guy they arrested with box cutters and the same background as the ones that crashed the planes. They hooked him up on September 14.

“By the way,” John continued, “I used those blue cuffs you gave me.”

I got that lump again.

I said I was proud to think the old cuffs had been used on a potential terrorist. John trumped that card. “I’ve used ‘em on real terrorists, too,” he added. John had served a rotation as an interrogator at Gitmo and said he made sure the blue cuffs had been used to and from the interrogation room. “I go back to Quantico and teach defensive tactics,” John continued, “and I always demonstrate with the blue cuffs. Every time I pull them out I tell the students the story of where these handcuffs have been. I tell ‘em a REAL cop gave me these cuffs.”

John carries a gun all the time and volunteers to go out on arrest raids, though he works in a very different specialty now. He absolutely LOVES what he does. I worked that damn lump down far enough to tell John he sounded different from most of the FBI agents I’ve known. The lesson finally penetrated my thick skull when John said, “Dick, I AM different from many of the agents I work with. You gave me more than handcuffs.”

“More than handcuffs.” That took a while to fully settle in.

“You gave me more than handcuffs”

I’ve trained thousands of police officers in classrooms and on firing ranges. I’ve had a lot of handshakes and “great training” comments over those years. But, I suddenly realized that with John, I must have been a mentor, without even knowing I’d done it. A little piece of me must have helped John become what he is, a hard-charging federal agent protecting all of us from the boogeymen.

I’m sure glad the piece he took away from our brief time together was a positive one. That is the lesson in this story for trainers. You may train hundreds or thousands of officers in your career. But, even more importantly, you may just serve as an example to a few of them. We all get shopworn and cynical as the years pile up. It’s all too easy to let those bad spots show through. Every one of us has a few people we remember as “examples” during our careers. Work hard to be an “example” to young officers and, even though none of us are perfect, strive to leave each student with some gem that will make you a positive example, rather than a bad one.

I remember Jim, the old night shift commander. His hair was snow-white, but he might have been the toughest man I’ve ever known. I never saw him write a ticket or a report (I’m not sure he could write much more than his name), but almost nothing happened in his town at night that one of his snitches didn’t see.

I remember the old day-shift guy they called “Dooley.” To my notion, he was old, fat and just biding his time until retirement. Then one day a fight broke out in the booking room and I saw Dooley reach out with the reflexes of a cat and literally “catch” a hard-thrown punch. He held onto that suspect’s fist and crushed the man down to his knees simply by the power of his one hand. Turns out Dooley had been a Pacific Theater boxing champ in the Navy in World War II, and the best cop to handle a bar fight anyone could remember.

I remember Dan, the Under Sheriff who had retired from a big city agency. He’d survived several gunfights there on a stake-out team. In some respects, he was a bad example. But in pure mental conditioning for combat, he could ’a wrote the book. One sunny day we both responded to a domestic battery call out on the reservation. As we were helping load the badly beaten wife into an ambulance, the husband walked back up from the creek bottom, before we’d had time to go after him. The shirtless drunk threw down an empty whiskey bottle, moved his right hand to his back waistband and announced, “I’ve got a gun.” So did we. I remember concentrating on the front sight and deciding I’d shoot if that hand jerked forward. I was probably too tunneled-in to see him alongside me, but I can still hear Dan’s words today, “Show it to me, a–hole.” I was mentally prepared to shoot if need be. Dan was a step beyond that. He was the consummate sheepdog longing to take out a wolf. The wolf had no teeth that day.

I remember Mark. I was his FTO for his first weeks out of the academy. One night he backed up a city car on a dropped 911 call, where a female was screaming for help before the phone went dead. When Mark arrived, he saw a man trying to un-jam a .25 pistol to shoot the screaming woman. It, too, ended without gunfire. But, when I was helping unload the suspect in the sallyport, Mark illustrated how close it had come. As he was about to put his Beretta in the weapon locker, he turned around and showed it to the suspect, “Hey, jerk, I got the hammer back to half-cock on you.” It was good training and experience that prepared Mark for that possible shot and the same qualities that allowed him to stop the trigger pull when the suspect threw down his weapon.

Mark is the only one of these memories still alive. We got together for a couple of days a while back and his elbow was scuffed and scabbed. “Yeah,” Mark explained, “an idiot got rowdy when I was at a meeting in City Hall and we ended up in a pretty good tussle before I walked him over to jail.” Mark is the chief now and I bet his young officers just got one of their own “memories” when the chief dragged a fighter across the alley to jail without bothering to call for any help.

The lesson I learned from John is that I was one of the memories that shaped him. I guess I’d never really thought of myself that way before. The ultimate compliment came in John’s plan for the future. He plans to pass those old, blue handcuffs on to some young agent that catches his eye. “I’ll tell ‘em about you and the story of the old cuffs,” he told me, “I’ll keep the legend going.” When John picks out that young agent, he’ll no doubt give them “more than handcuffs.”

Maybe I need to see the doc about this damn lump in my throat.

May 20, 2020 - The Legend of the Blue Handcuffs continues


L-R: SSA John Doe, SA James Doe and article author Dick Fairburn. Due to the often covert nature of their work, the FBI agents’ identities are masked.


Pictured here is Supervisory Special Agent John Doe of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who is preparing to transfer to the agency’s national HQ for a promotion, adds another generation to the “Legend of the Blue Handcuffs” by handing off the restraints he had used for 22 years to one of his young agents, Special Agent James Doe.

SSA John Doe said, “As I approach the end of my career, I have found the ideal candidate to carry on the legend of these handcuffs, one of the finest young agents I have ever worked with; hard-working, knowledgeable, dedicated and a great family man.”

This article, originally published 06/07/2009, has been updated.

Dick Fairburn has had more than 26 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming. He has worked patrol, investigations and administration assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst, and as the Section Chief of a major academy’s Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident Training program.