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Cuffs on, cuffs off

How to master the art of speedy handcuff application and removal

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Hinge handcuffs for large suspects, linked handcuffs with both locking mechanisms on both sides, and the pen-sized handcuff key for easy application and removal.

Dan Marcou

Nothing encourages resistance in a suspect who is considering resistance like an officer who fumbles with their handcuffs. Pros master the art of handcuff application and removal. Here are some considerations for your review.

Emergency removal

Officers must master the ability to remove handcuffs quickly when necessary. With the number of drug overdoses that officers are called to, you must be able to quickly identify when a suspect goes into cardiac arrest. A drug user can be fighting furiously one moment and be clinically dead the next. If that happens, the handcuffs need to come off quickly to start the rescue process.

The proper handcuffs

When I was on the streets, I always carried two sets of handcuffs (besides a few extra flex-cuffs).

My primary handcuffs were linked cuffs with the lock and double/safety lock on both sides of each cuff. This allowed quick access to all mechanisms during the application and release process.

The second set of handcuffs I carried was a set of hinged cuffs. They were great for large-wristed subjects who were too big for regular handcuffs. These larger handcuffs allowed them to ride to jail safe, comfortable and secure.

Two sets of handcuffs also allowed me to connect them and use them as one for persons too inflexible to get their arms back far enough to use a single set.

There were also times I used two sets of handcuffs to secure four suspects temporarily until more help arrived.

The key to the problem

One tool essential for an emergency quick release from handcuffs is the pen-length handcuff key. The small handcuff key mixed into the keys on your ring key ring not only causes inept-looking fumbling, but it also slows you down during application and removal providing an opportunity for resistance.

Handcuff training: Speed cuffing

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This is what the “speed cuffing” grip looks like.

Dan Marcou

Many administrators believe that because their officers use handcuffs daily, they need no follow-up training in handcuffing. In reality, the skill of handcuffing and removing the handcuffs is a perishable, complex psychomotor skill that needs to be maintained.

The primary tactic I taught in-house was “speed cuffing,” which once mastered, allows an officer to get handcuffs on and off quickly. “Speed cuffing” was the technique I used most often for arrests. This technique can be used when the suspect is standing, kneeling, or prone. It also allows for not only a speedy application but also a speedy removal in the event of a medical emergency.

Standing application: Have suspects stand with their feet apart, with their toes pointed outward and have them lean forward. Once they comply tell them to, “Put your hands behind your back, with the back of your hands together, thumbs up.”


The pinky side cuff goes on first with a contact quick downward push of the single strand on the wrists “handcuff groove.”

Dan Marcou

The approach and grip: Approaching from your strong side behind and beside the suspect (the “2½ position”), grip your handcuffs with the chain across the palm of your strong hand, double strand toward your wrist and the single strand toward your fingers. Close your strong hand on the handcuff so that the cuffs are firmly controlled and not wobbly in your grip. You may have to put the cuffs closer together if they are linked cuffs to accomplish this if you have small hands.

With your handcuffs in your strong hand (let’s say that is your right hand), approach from the suspect’s right side and to the rear and control the back of his right hand with your left by taking hold with your left thumb including his thumb and hand in the grip, wrapping your hand around the backside of his hand and positioning your hand so your left middle finger is indexed around the knuckle of the little finger where the knuckle joins the hand. If necessary, you are set up to apply rear compliance.

Pull the hand slightly away from the body to expose the wrist’s “handcuff groove.”

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Reach across to control the other hand, make contact with the single strand of the thumb-side cuff, and downward push allowing the single strand to swing around and connect.

Photo/Dan Marcou

Applying the handcuffs: Apply the pinky-side cuff first and make contact with the single strand and after making contact on the top side of the wrist’s “handcuff groove,” push downward quickly and allow the single strand to swing freely around and close. If the cuff does not close, tap it shut with your left index finger. (Do not “slap” the handcuff on. Make a distinct contact followed by a quick push downward.)

Now with your left hand, reach and take hold of the suspect’s left hand, gripping with your thumb controlling their left palm side of their hand and thumb and your left middle finger indexed around the bottom knuckle of the suspect’s pinky. Pull the hand out, slightly away from the body exposing the “handcuff groove” of the wrist. Make a distinct contact with the single strand of your thumb-side handcuff, followed by a quick push downward, causing the single strand to quickly swing around and close. If it doesn’t close, tap it shut with the left index finger.

Adjust and safety lock: Now adjust for tightness, one cuff at a time, to make certain the handcuffs are not so tight that they cut off circulation, but not so loose that the subject can slip a hand out. Once one is properly adjusted, adjust the other cuff. Trying to adjust both cuffs at once will create a tendency to have one cuff too tight or too loose. Make certain there is no clothing between the handcuff and the wrist as this will create a potential space for escaping the handcuff.


Adjust one cuff at a time and then safety/double lock them both.

Dan Marcou

Once the handcuffs are adjusted use your long handcuff key to safety/double lock both handcuffs to prevent them from getting tighter or allowing a suspect to tighten them deliberately.

Note: Conduct a thorough search after you handcuff your legally arrested suspect. Don’t forget the lunge area.

Non-emergency removal: Have the suspect lean forward exposing the underside of the cuffs locking mechanism. Re-grip the handcuffs with your reaction hand while having your long handcuff key in your strong hand. You should now be slightly behind and beside to their left. With locks on both sides of the cuff, you can quickly unlock the cuff furthest away first. Ask them to roll their hand out and place that hand on top of their head palm up (compliance check), and immediately close the opened cuff to prevent it from being used as a weapon against you.

Then unlock the cuff closest to you and step away as you roll off the cuff. You close, adjust and replace your handcuff in its case. Clean the handcuff later out of contact with the suspect.

The same psychomotor skill for non-emergency removal is used in emergency removal, only done faster and without the compliance check.


It is advisable that you choose your primary tactic and use the many cooperative suspects you have to re-enforce that tactic by doing it “classroom correct” each and every time. This will give you the repetition to ensure that even under stress you will be in control.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter.

Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. He is the co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters.” His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and “Destiny of Heroes,” as well as two non-fiction books, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History” and “If I Knew Then: Life Lessons From Cops on the Street.” All of Lt. Marcou’s books are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.