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Sheriff Recalls Handcuffs

Deputies Told to Turn In Restraints Said to Have Injured Suspect, Though Manufacturer Disputes Claims

June 11, 2003|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

They have restrained some of history's most infamous killers, but Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has ordered his deputies to turn in more than a thousand pairs of handcuffs made by a 223-year-old British company because they may be hurting suspects' wrists.

"It appears the engineering may cause injuries," Baca said of the steel cuffs made by Hiatt & Co. Ltd. "That is not our intent or our policy."

Anyone in handcuffs who struggles can be injured, Baca said. He said it's his job to ensure, as much as possible, that doesn't happen.

"We want to use a cuff that reduces the risk of injury. These are a very solid design and effective cuff," Baca said, holding a set of the Hiatts. "But we cannot use a cuff that has the potential for inadvertent injuries."

The company reacted harshly to the news that Baca had ordered more than 7,000 deputies to turn in their cuffs.

"Hiatt handcuffs are used by government agencies throughout the world, and are known for their quality and reliability," said Dawn Thompson, president of Hiatt-Thompson, the handcuff manufacturer's North American distributor.

"To this date, we have received no handcuff complaint or problems brought to our attention from any employee at the Sheriff's Department," Thompson said. She said department officials have not responded to her efforts to contact them, "and therefore we consider the accusations that have been made totally unfounded and without merit."

The company's Web site says it supplies cuffs to the Army and to the New York City Police Department. The Los Angeles Police Department uses Smith & Wesson cuffs, according to a spokesman.

The Sheriff's Department watchdog, Mike Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, recommended that the use of Hiatts be halted after a probe into a July 2001 complaint of excessive force.

Gennaco said Eduardo Mata, arrested in a Lancaster park, accused deputies of cuffing him too tightly.

Gennaco said officials found Mata's wrists had been cut to the point of bleeding as he moved around in the back of a patrol car. Mata was later convicted of possession of a weapon and served 68 days in jail.

Capt. Carl Deeley, the newly appointed head of the Lancaster station, then noticed that the Hiatt cuffs used in the incident had sharper inside edges than the Peerless and Smith & Wesson brands also used by deputies, Gennaco said.

"The Peerless have beveled edges; these don't," Gennaco said, handling the Hiatt Model 2010 nickel-plated cuffs.

Gennaco said he wants to make it clear that Hiatt handcuffs are not defective, and meet federal standards. He said there is no evidence to suggest others have suffered injuries. Lawsuits and claims over handcuffs are common, he said.

The Hiatt handcuffs, Gennaco said, were acquired between 1989 and 1994 from Hiatt-Thompson for $14.24 each. Approximately 1,975 pairs of handcuffs were purchased and more than 1,000 pairs remain in use.

Baca said there is a sufficient supply of Peerless and Smith & Wesson brands to replace the Hiatt cuffs, and the $20,000 it will cost to restock can be covered in the existing budget. Hiatts account for an estimated 7% of the handcuffs in circulation in the department.

Deputies early this month received a memo telling them to turn in their Hiatts by June 23.

"Why not do everything possible to reduce injuries?" Gennaco asked. "Injuries mean more deputy time on investigations, and increased medical costs."

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