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Tuesday, November 17, 2020
In: Police

Westminster Police Discuss Training, Policy and Procedure for Prone Handcuffing

9News Story by Chris Vanderveen

Last week, Chris Vanderveen, with 9News, released a two-part story which focuses on the death of people who were in police custody.  Chris’ research found that over a one year period, more than 100 deaths occurred while a person was handcuffed and left in the prone position.  The focus of his story is not on Westminster, but on law enforcement nationwide.  These stories are tragic.  Each situation was devastating to family, friends, the involved officers and our communities. 

We want to talk with you about his story from a local perspective, and about what Westminster police are doing to prevent these types of deaths.  To fully understand the conversation it helps to watch his two-part series which are linked below. 

For decades the Westminster Police Department has been aware of complicated medical situations which have been labeled as many different things: in-custody death, agitated chaotic event, positional asphyxia and excited delirium.  Our training programs focus on several key elements to prevent someone’s death while in a prone handcuffed positon.  Westminster instructors train officers and communication center personnel how to recognize these situations.  That recognition begins before a handcuffing procedure is initiated to reduce the potential for a medical emergency.  Recognizing behaviors associated with an agitated chaotic event starts during the initial telephone call to police.  Our dispatchers are trained to be mindful of distress indicators and often send paramedics from the Westminster Fire Department alongside police officers.  Paramedics are then immediately available to provide medical attention when the situation has been deemed safe. 

The department also implemented procedures and protocols to further minimize risks once an individual is handcuffed.  Officers are provided education and instruction for how factors, such as; drugs and mental health, can increase the potential for positional asphyxia

Twice a year our department conducts in-service training which incorporates and focuses on positional asphyxia.  This training coincides with biannual instruction on appropriate arrest and handcuffing procedures.  Westminster teaches three methods for handcuffing: standing, kneeling and prone.  The circumstances of the arrest along with risk factors guide an officer in determining the best method to handcuff an individual.  Some individuals we encounter are not compliant, but are violent and dangerous.  Their behavior affects how that person is handcuffed. 

Focusing on our prone handcuffing procedure, officers are taught that once the person is handcuffed the officer/s are to perform an immediate search for weapons only in the high risk areas.  Our procedure is to then sit the person up, repositioning them to an upright position.  A more thorough search can be conducted once the individual is standing.  Medical experts agree this dramatically reduces the strain on the diaphragm and decreases the chances of positional asphyxia.  Chris Vanderveen’s story highlights the importance and value on moving the person from a face down prone position to an upright sitting position. 

As we learn more about this medical complication we adjust our training and tactics.  Several years ago we modified our arrest procedures to reduce the potential for having the weight of multiple officers on an individual’s back.  We began training a technique which limits the need for weight across the back and instead pins the shoulder until handcuffs can safely be applied.  This change evolved with a focus to safely get individuals into custody while limiting the risk posed to them and the officers.  Whenever possible, we use time and distance to our advantage to limit inherent risks involved in physical confrontations. 

We recently implemented a mental health Co-Responder program which employs two full-time licensed clinicians.  Our mental health professionals respond directly from the police department and assist officers when appropriate in an effort to further reduce the potential for physical confrontations.  Co-Responders provide additional options to help people struggling with a mental health crisis.     

We are using Chris’ story as an opportunity to remind our officers about positional asphyxia by sharing this message and his story with our department.  We, like many departments across the country, are confronted on a daily basis with people under the influence of drugs, who are or may be dealing with mental health crisis or their criminal behavior which results in a prone arrest. 

Our training efforts have been successful.  On numerous occasions our officers have recognized these medical emergencies related to agitated chaotic events and adjusted how we interacted with those people.  We have a fantastic relationship with Westminster Fire and EMS personnel and work together to get those individuals the medical care and treatment they need first and foremost. 

We believe in part because of our proactive training, procedures and protocols, Westminster has never had a death related to a prone arrest.  We are here, ready to listen and want to talk with our community about Chris Vanderveen’s story, prone arrests or other questions you may have.  We are committed to serving Westminster residents and visitors with professionalism, dignity and respect.

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