Surviving Your Prisoner Transport
Richard B. Weinblatt
In the wake of the recent Broward County Sheriff’s Office’s transportation deputy’s death here in Florida, I thought an article on transportation mandates would be in order. For some, these bullet points will be an eye opener. For others, they may serve as reminders of things told to you by your academy instructors and your field training officer (FTO).
Many of these legal and officer survival tips apply to both patrol officers in their daily handling of people in custody, as well as detention and transport personnel moving convicts and pre-trial detainees to court, medical appointments, and other fun-filled destinations.
1) Know your agency policy. This should be the most basic of tips in this article. Agency policies are culled from applicable state statutes and case precedents (including constitutional law). You should know the policies AND actually act within those dictates.
If you stay within the parameters of your agency’s policy, chances are you’ll be okay on both the legal and tactical fronts. If not, when you are out on that limb, you may see someone with gold on his/her collar sawing away at the branch upon which you are perched.
2) Prisoners are not your pals. The folks in chains are there for a reason. They are not your friends. While you should certainly be respectful and non-judgmental, being too friendly or overly familiar would not be a good thing. As long-time correction officers know, prisoners have nothing but time on their hand to figure out what makes you tick and exploit vulnerabilities.
3) Don’t Stop. It appears, according to preliminary reports, the Broward County deputy sheriff stopped his transport van to let his medical transport prisoner smoke a cigarette. While I do not want to criticize a fallen officer, it behooves us as professionals to examine possible mistakes in order to learn and minimize the chances of another officer being killed in similar circumstances.
As a patrol division deputy sheriff, I used to make extra money helping the transport division in my time off. I did both short across the city and long-haul traversing the state prisoner transports. I never stopped.
Any food I needed was already on board in my marked Chevrolet Caprice. If I saw something that needed attention, I called it in. I didn’t stop. My concern was that outside folks might be working with my prisoner on the big escape.
4) Handcuff and Search. In just that order. Improper handcuffing and searching are basic items that hearken from the academy days. Proper handcuffing includes checking for proper fit and double-locking. I would even note the two items in parentheses in my reports. On the legal front, one of the most common police brutality complaints revolves around handcuffs that tighten when they are not double-locked. As for the tactical side, double-locking creates a more reliable securing mechanism.
Searching should always follow handcuffing. When assuming custody from another officer, always perform your own search. I never took the word of another officer as to the search status of a prisoner. Besides, even the most experienced officers have been known to miss a weapon or contraband in a search. A subsequent search can’t hurt and can only help you.
As for the switching of the handcuffs when you assume custody from another officer, it is best to place your cuffs on first and then remove the other officer’s handcuffs. This tactic keeps the prisoner secure at all times.
5. Use a Proper Vehicle. Make sure that the vehicle that you are using is properly outfitted and is not likely to break down while enroute to your destination. Cars and vans should be caged (the politically correct term is partitioned). Units should have a partition system that is OSHA compliant and prevents the front compartment from being exposed to blood borne pathogens.
You should check (as always) your vehicle’s mechanical condition. Check the vehicle’s fluid levels, belts, tires, lights, siren, and radio. The last one is important as it could very well be your lifeline. You don’t want to break down in a marked vehicle with a prisoner onboard.
6. Use Proper Positioning. Much as you learned in defensive tactics, having a poor position relative to your prisoner can be a disaster that is hard to recover from. Make sure that all your side-by-side escorts are with the prisoner on your non-firearm side. Too many officers forget their basic officer safety and expose their weapon side.
In the same vein as protecting your gun side, don’t turn your back. Remember, the only thing standing between you and the prisoner’s freedom (especially out on the open highway) is you. Turning your back is just too tempting an opportunity for some of our society’s behavior-challenged folks.
7. Use all your equipment. While not all agencies equip their badge carriers to the full extent they should, thankfully some do. Take advantage of all of the equipment they give you. If you think something is essential and it wasn’t issued, purchase it out of your own money (as long as its not contrary to policy). While you can feel in principle that the agency was remiss in not getting you all the good stuff, your life is worth more than a few dollars.
If your agency issues leg irons and belly chains, use them. I had these fashionable accoutrements for the prisoner transport details and used them every time. They can’t run too fast with all the metal on them. I even used had a set of leg irons in my Caprice for patrol duties and used them on arrestees that were trying to kick me or my windows.
8. Look sharp and be fit. Just like when you respond to a 911 call for police service, prisoners size you up. Regular guests of the criminal justice system are notorious for doing this. These frequent flyers figure they know the system better than the newbie officers (and they often do) since they’ve been through the whole thing numerous times.
Make sure that your uniform is clean and pressed. Shine those boots. I always had my shirts tailored around my arms (shortened and tightened) and had the back tapered. You might even want to wear shirt stays or shirt suspenders to keep that shirt tight and tucked in neatly. I still wear them even with my criminal justice polo shirts.
Don’t abandon that physical fitness routine just because the academy drill instructors are a distant memory. People will check you out and try to figure out if they could take you on. If you appear to be more of a challenge, they will probably hesitate to tackle you (literally).
9. No Full Disclosure. As I stated before, these short-term acquaintances are not your friends. Don’t answer any personal questions about you, and especially your family, when they are being chauffeured to a room without a view. Long-term prisoners are particularly adept at cajoling the lonely deputy to reveal intimate details of their personal life. That information can be used to threaten or blackmail you and your loved ones.
10. Remember Miranda. Miranda is a much-misunderstood legal concept for many badge bearers. Miranda (off of the 1966 case Miranda v. Arizona involving migrant farm worker Ernesto Miranda) is actually quite simple for the patrol and detention officer.
Miranda can be remembered with two words: custodial and interrogation. If you’re not clear on this, you need to ask your supervisor or agency legal counsel to clarify any local nuances that may be at play (sorry, I had to throw that legal disclaimer in). In almost all circumstances, without one of those two components Miranda will not come into play.
Here is an example. I remember being dispatched when our narcotics agents were looking for a patrol division unit with a cage to transport a person they arrested. After the transport of the prisoner, I’d write a simple narrative supplement to piggyback on their initial report. In it, I’d state that I switched the handcuffs out, searched the individual again (double-locked of course), and seatbelted them into the back of my marked patrol car. My next line went like this: “During such transport, I neither asked Mr. Prisoner any questions, nor did he volunteer any information pertinent to his case or make any statements regarding an attorney.” No need for me to Mirandize here.
On the flip side, I have also spoken with people to get basic who, what, where type information. Those folks were free to leave and I made that clear to them as I was asking them questions. The custodial part was not present.
The bottom line of prisoner transport is to take proactive steps to ensure your legal and tactical survival. Most agency policies cover the basics of a safe prisoner movement operation. Even if your agency’s policy doesn’t, you can’t shift the blame and wait for everything to be handed to you. It is up to you, as a criminal justice professional, to take the mental and physical initiative to fill in any gaps. You must be an active participant in your bid for legal and tactical survival.