“Restraining Bag” – What Can Happen When Law Enforcement Gets a Tool

The ACLU this morning is sharing a video of a black man asserting his rights, standing with his hands up, who is suddenly tased. He falls and hits his head. Likely, though not provably at this time, he was tased for talking back to the police (in their eyes. In my eyes “I know my rights” is a fundamentally American statement that must be respected). Here’s the tweet, which you can follow to the upsetting video.

TASER (that’s a brand name. CEW = Conducted Electrical Weapon is the type) are great tools for cops, allowing them to engage with dangerous situations without resorting to lethal force. They undoubtedly have saved the lives of many disabled people, for example, who might have been armed and threatening, but who the police managed to  hit with a CEW rather than shoot.

Too often, though, a new tool like this becomes used instead of replacing lethal force (let’s call it the top of the force continuum, though likely my cop friends will correct my lingo!), it’s used down the continuum. Where once an officer might have used a nightstick or physical restraint, they now use an ECW. This is likely sometimes a good thing too! Physical scuffles are dangerous for everyone. But the Cult of Compliance keeps pushing to use the tool more and more often, so that anyone just standing there but not being properly obedient gets tased. And then we have a problem.

I’m writing this because I’ve been thinking about the “restraining bag,” as discussed in this fairly hyperbolic piece, about the NYPD’s practice of putting people in certain forms of crisis into big duffel bags.

Earlier this year the New York Police Department (NYPD), an organization of some 34,000 uniformed officers and an annual budget surpassing $5 billion, introduced a new crime fighting device, the ‘restraining bag,’ or as it is sometimes affectionately called, ‘the burrito.’ It is essentially a full-body sized duffel bag that officers can stuff a perpetrator into and cart him off to jail like a piece of luggage.

Image: The torsos of two officers holding a blue and white striped back saying NYPD ESU.
Presumably, there’s the body of a person inside, being “restrained”

The New York Times has followed up on the story.

In response to questions about the bags, the Police Department said it had used the restraints for 25 years. The department said only “highly trained members” of the Emergency Service Unit were authorized to use them. The person being restrained is assessed while being held and afterward, and is taken by an ambulance to a hospital for medical and psychological evaluation.
From Jan. 1 through April 20 of this year, the bag was used 122 times, the police said, or about once a day. During that same period, the department said, it received more than 44,000 emergency calls about emotionally disturbed people.

That’s probably good. I’m glad to know about these bags so we can keep an eye on their use. I am sure there are plenty of difficult situations in which this bag is the right tool to wrap up a person and safely transport them to help. I’m also sure that, absent clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules, they will be mis-used.

I asked Lou Hayes, a a former SWAT supervisor, and current CIT detective in Chicagoland, who also trains police in use of force, about whether he thought the bag was useful. He told me:

Does it have it’s purpose? Sure. Extremely limited use though. As with any piece of equipment, it has the possibility of being misused and overused in the wrong circumstances. Every problem looks like a nail to he with a hammer.

I still argue that team arrest/custody tactics are of way more use than any of the fancy equipment out there. (Keep in mind that I use “arrest/custody” loosely, which covers the non-criminal protective custody of violent or otherwise involuntary folks.)

What is the so-called best practices, with broad application and highly adaptable? Team handcuffing, with multi-string of cuffs, hobble restraint (think: a cross between a tie-down strap & a dog leash) around legs/ankles, then secured to a paramedic backboard with the multitude of straps (like seatbelt webbing) and the head blocks w/ forehead strap.

Is it too early to be discussing field-administered sedatives by paramedics?

A team of cops & paramedics that I trained in the above tactics saved a young man’s life last week who was wigging out on flakka or bath salts or some other fierce street drug cocktail. The man was “packaged up” for hasty transport to ER where he was in a physical position to be easily treated by ER staff. The trick was the hasty and decisive escalation by the cops to put the naked young man (~20) into the best position to be medically treated for a metabolic emergency where his body temp was so high he was essentially cooking himself from the inside.

Would a restraint bag have helped? Maybe. But to what extent will there be a prolonged fight to get him into it? Then what sort of position is the person in to be treated at ER?

So the picture is terrifying. The use is limited. I fear that every time there’s a non-compliant individual, especially someone who is disabled (which means the cops will be influenced by anti-disability stigma, and likely afraid), the impulse will become, “bag them.”

Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.

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