The History of Police Restraints (Post 19th Century)

The use of restraints is a core aspect of how policing is executed in America. 

Why do they use the tools and methods police use to restrain people? 

Whose safety is the concern when the police physically interact with citizens? 

These are common questions when wading through the vast amount of data on the subject. 

By looking at the history of police restraints, we can begin to understand the reasoning behind these tools and techniques. 

Sound like a plan? Then let’s dive in!

The Restraints of the 19th Century- Snips and Snaps 

Snips, or snaps were a crude wrist restraint that consisted of a clamp on one side and a handle on the other. These were the most common types of restraint used by police officers in the 19th century. The clamp was a fitted size and this could cause injuries to people If a cop was strong enough, they could snap a wrist. 

Furthermore, snips were usually owned by the officer that was using them and they came in different shapes and sizes. Due to inconveniences caused by the fixed size and the lack of accessible keys if one was lost, it is easy to see why these could be a nightmare waiting to happen to either side.  

The Introduction of Physical Force with Batons 

When we think about cops and batons it’s easy to picture them brandishing batons like Vikings charging into combat. Though the tough guy on the street style of policing is rarely seen these days. It was all too common in the beginning. 

Look, a lack of laws on police brutality left only the politicians they worked for to hold them accountable in the 19th century. 

Batons as Restraints? 

Most people don’t know this but, batons can be used to restrain a person in two simple ways. 

The first way is to actually tie the individual up with the thong on the handle. This method is not recommended unless no other options are available, due to lack of efficiency. 

Once a person was restrained, the baton was used as a come-along. By holding the end of the baton an officer could pull, or push the person they apprehended with ease. 

The second way the baton could be used as a restraint was to strangle the individual. By standing behind them and placing the weapon on the throat of an individual. The cop is given control over them and can subdue them with an air choke

Looking at the First Century of Police Restraints 

Due to the inconveniences caused by snips and tying subjects up. A quicker and more effective method was desired by many police officers. The research we have in the modern era didn’t exist in the slightest up until fifty years ago. Even police handbooks recommended by the DOJ in 1964 still approved the usage of strangulation methods being used on citizens


In 1912 James Milton Gill bought the patent for a new type of wrist restraint that would simply swing over the wrist and latch. The Peerless company began manufacturing and distributing these swing cuffs a few years later. Though financial restrictions were a factor against smaller departments, these cuffs quickly became the standard for wrist restraints. 

Though these are safer than previous restraints the main selling point was ease of use. 

Plastic cuffs 

Unfortunately, this isn’t about a cool 3D printed set of handcuffs. 

Zip Ties, zip cuffs, or plastic cuffs are commonly used by police forces for multiple reasons. The main reason is to restrain large amounts of people. Zip ties are commonly used as restraints during protests due to ease of use and the quantity a person can carry. 

It’s true, Zip Ties are effective at binding a person, but if applied improperly these can easily cause injuries to an individual and prolonged use will only agitate the issue. Injuries range from lack of feeling for as long as months, to long term nerve damage. 

Similar to the snips of the 19th century, zip ties pose a few potential risks. A crude, yet simple, way to bind an individual that has the capacity to cause injuries if used improperly. If the restraint needs to be reapplied the officers must have the proper equipment to remove the over tightened set. In some cases people wait for hours. 

In case you are confused, the proper equipment is a pair of side cutting pliers. 

Chokeholds as a Form of Restraint

Chokeholds were viewed as uncontroversial by the state. Up until the 1980s when Los Angeles had banned chokeholds, due to mounting public backlash and a growing pile of lawsuits. In the early 90s New York became the first state to ban the police use of chokeholds. The cascade effect continued across the country and now these and are among the most controversial restraint techniques used today. 

In the present, a plethora of lawsuits and public protest continue to bring chokeholds into the realm of public scrutiny. 

The reason officers use chokeholds is not only because it is one of the safer ways to subdue an opponent. It is also one of the quickest and most effective if done properly. Due to an increased education in martial arts and human physiology. Police officers refrain from using air chokes and are advised to use blood chokes when permissible. 

Not all chokes are equal 

Air choke

An air choke blocks the airways, denying the blood access to oxygen. After the oxygen in the blood is depleted, the brain shuts off and the person passes out. Regaining consciousness is a slow process as the body must regain a proper blood oxygen level before it can reboot the brain.

This method, referred to as strangulation with the baton, can cause injuries due to prolonged state of low oxygen, or even lead to death. 

Blood Choke

On the other hand, a blood choke targets the flow of blood to the brain by constricting one or both sides of the neck. This method will not only yield the subject unconscious faster it is also safer. When the flow of blood is cut off to the brain it is forced to shut off after it has absorbed all the oxygen from the blood in the skull. When the flow of blood returns, blood with oxygen is instantly cycled through, meaning a quicker reboot. 

It’s no joke, a blood choke can still cause injuries and if applied for too long will kill a person. In martial arts, suppression techniques like this are meant to be quick ways to subdue an opponent. Any prolonged, or aggressive use of these moves is putting the brain through physical strain. 

For close to fifty years, the federal government and state entities have been looking at chokeholds and how ethical they are

Police reform and laws about this type of restraint are always changing on the state and local level. Despite these changes, banned chokehold techniques will still be used by officers, mostly by repeat offenders. 

What’s Next? A Constantly Evolving System 

In the 21st century laws on the restraints that police can use and how they can be used are constantly changing. 

The circulation of videos through social media and chat groups have certainly had an effect on the way physical suppression is publicly viewed. The internet allows the public access to education about the laws that we wouldn’t have had fifty years ago

As we move further into this era of mass data circulation, the public seems to be having a larger influence on the way they are policed. Many cities continue to outlaw the use of certain restraining techniques and listen to ideas, even as fringe as defunding the police

The age of data will influence the future of police restraints and how the public and state view them. When that time comes, why will they use the restraints they use next?O