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Monday, April 14, 2014

New York Police Routinely Handcuff Shooting Victims: Thoughts From the Medical and Prosecution Perspectives

That is the subject of this article in the New York Times. From the article:

The New York Police Department routinely performs warrant checks on shooting victims. If an outstanding warrant is found, the police generally handcuff and shackle the victim, often for the whole hospital stay, no matter how minor the underlying offense or how grievous the injuries.
“That’s the procedure,” the department’s chief spokesman, Stephen Davis, said, explaining that the “patrol guide says prisoners will be handcuffed at all times.” 
“We’re not handcuffing him by virtue of him being a victim,” Mr. Davis said, referring in general to instances where shooting victims were arrested on minor warrants. “But if he has a warrant, it would require him to be in our custody.”
The Times goes on to provide several examples of this practice, and illustrates the burdens the practice places on gunshot victims.

While I am neither a medical expert, nor a criminal prosecutor, I have had the opportunity to work in both hospital and prosecutorial settings, and I think that the NYPD's uniform approach to this issue is misguided.

The Medical Perspective

I worked for several years at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) in a variety of capacities, but most relevant to this story, I was a clerk in the radiology department. It was my job to schedule and coordinate X-Ray and MRI exams with the various inpatient units in the hospital (and the Emergency Room, when it came to MRIs). A number of patients at UIHC were prisoners, given UIHC's close proximity to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center.

Patients who were prisoners at UIHC were constantly under guard by prison personnel. These guards were stationed outside of the patients' rooms and would accompany these patients to various exams. While my perspective on overall patient care was quite limited, I still had the opportunity to see some of the difficulties of treating patients who were prisoners -- for example, those prisoners who needed to take MRI exams had to be escorted to the MRI department, have their handcuffs removed and replaced with plastic handcuffs, and supervised while undergoing the MRI.

At UIHC, the costs and inefficiencies of supervising prisoners made sense. For the most part, the patients under supervision were inmates who had been convicted of crimes that were severe enough to warrant imprisonment. Contrast this with the NYPD of handcuffing and placing under supervision all patients who have been charged with some sort of crime, regardless of the severity of the crime.

The New York policy requires a disproportionate expenditure of law enforcement resources on detaining people who have been accused of relatively insignificant offenses. And the blanket approach of this policy -- which applies regardless of how badly injured the victim is -- is most likely an unnecessary intrusion on efficient and effective medical care.

The Prosecution Perspective

One excellent feature of my previous internship with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office was that I had the opportunity to interact with numerous victims in a variety of capacities. I communicated with victims of both violent and nonviolent crimes for purposes ranging from learning what they had experienced, to scheduling their court appearances.

I think it is a sensible rule that, when possible, prosecutors should maintain as cordial a relationship as possible with victims and witnesses. Trying a case is not easy -- prosecutors need to ensure that witnesses and victims show up for preliminary hearings and the trial itself, and prosecutors want those witnesses and victims to tell as compelling a story as possible to the jury. These goals may be thwarted if victims are angry at prosecutors. Even if victims want criminals punished, if they have a bad relationship with those prosecuting the crime, they may be less willing to work with prosecutors by taking time out of their everyday lives to show up to court proceedings. And a bad relationship with prosecutors who examine these people on the stand may cause their testimony to come across as less-than-convincing.

The NYPD has a blanket policy to handcuff and guard shooting victims who have an outstanding warrant of any sort. Because these victims have been shot by the suspects, the cases these victims would testify in are almost certainly severe, likely ranging from assault with a deadly weapon to attempted murder cases.

By handcuffing these victims and placing them in police custody, the NYPD antagonizes them from the beginning, making it less likely that they will be willing to cooperate with the prosecution throughout the lengthy trial process. And even if these victims do decide to cooperate (after all, they have been shot by the suspect), their treatment at the hands of the police may still lead them to come across as hostile and disagreeable when it comes to trials and hearings.


The NYPD approach is an illustration of how a seemingly sensible policy, if applied too generally, may be overly burdensome on those who the criminal justice system is supposed to protect, and how such a policy may ultimately be self-defeating. The NYPD should reconsider its blanket application of detaining gunshot victims with outstanding warrants by altering its policy to take into account the severity crime on which the outstanding warrant is based, by taking into account the severity of the victim's injuries, and by limiting the intrusion on victim's privacy and freedom of movement.

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