July 16, 2014 | 4 Comments

Plastic Handcuffs and Bite/Spit Mask (Various Designers)

From the curators: Designs for use in the criminal justice system are rarely seen up-close—let alone experienced firsthand—by the majority of the law-abiding public. Yet they are often produced en masse and retail cheaply. In use since the 1970s, plastic handcuffs have become popular among law enforcement and military personnel, particularly when a large number of arrests are anticipated in demonstrations or riot scenarios. Their increased usage has become a source of controversy, particularly in the wake of the recent Occupy movement, when members of the public with no prior criminal record experienced—and resisted—restraint and arrest for the first time. As with any kind of restraint, comfort is not always the priority; these cuffs fasten tightly against the wrist and thus require skill to apply without creating unintended harm to the subject. Plastic cuffs are preferred in part due to their disposability, thus eliminating concerns about sanitation associated with reusing metal restraints. Concerns about transmittable and infectious disease have also led to the rising use of bite/spit masks, which create a protective buffer for law enforcement officers and medical professionals when aiding hostile patients. Like plastic handcuffs, these masks can be used as a way to control non-compliant inmates. These masks also require careful and proper application to be truly safe, and human-rights activists have criticized their (mis)use.

Violence begets violence. In the name of preventing violence, we have become accustomed to the use of violence. This accommodation desensitizes us as a society, and leaves many of us—particularly those in positions of power—remarkably unaware of the pain inflicted on often innocent people by the needless use of violence. Law enforcement officers must have legitimate means to protect themselves from danger. Physical restraints are sometimes a necessary tool. But fear, anger, disdain, stereotyping, and control can all distort the legitimate need for self-protection into a dangerous abuse of power that escalates a fairly ordinary event into a violent one. It has become all too common for those in positions of power to use restraints when they are not necessary to provide protection.

Let us take, for example, the overuse of Flexicuffs. Slapping these cuffs on people who present no danger for the purpose of presenting a “perp walk” for the media inflicts violence without any legitimate purpose. Using these cuffs for needlessly long periods of times—such as forcing a suspected prostitute to ride cuffed in a police van for hours while the van picks up other suspected prostitutes—again inflicts violence for no reason. As an aside, prostitutes are repeatedly victimized—first by their pimps, then by their customers, and then by the system, which uses often painful handcuffs on them and forces them to watch others suffering the same pain and humiliation. Similarly, cuffing peaceful protesters at events such as the Republican National Convention or the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations inflicts violence as punishment, not protection.

Another example of the nebulous ground between disciplining and punishing is the use of bite/spit masks. These ugly devices can serve a legitimate function: to protect officers from the risk that people with communicable diseases will spit at them or bite them. But what about the use of such a device to silence a defendant who is loud, shouts obscenities, or verbally abuses or demeans the officer? Does this not inflict—and recycle and intensify—violence when a less violent response would accomplish the necessary goal?

A civilized society would encourage the least restrictive restraint necessary to accomplish a legitimate goal. Once a society tolerates the use of more force than is necessary, bad things inevitably happen. Guns are drawn when they needn’t be. Shots are fired when they needn’t be. Innocent bystanders are injured when a shot goes astray. Flexicuffs and bite/spit masks are not guns. But we should appreciate that justifying the misuse or overuse of one tool creates a license to misuse or overuse others.

It is always heartbreaking when we witness a raw abuse of power—such as the videotaped beating of Rodney King or the well publicized murder of Amadou Diallo. While it is a heartbreak, it is not a surprise. This country has a culture of accepting and even glamorizing violence—just look at the number of movies with shootouts or slashings or explosions, often conducted by government agents as a necessary means to a noble end. (Is it any wonder that so many wannabes end up killing their classmates in school shootings!?)

But I stray from the design focus here—the use of law enforcement tools such as Flexicuffs and bite/spit masks. In the name of preventing violence, our culture has enshrined the use of violence. Would that our officers carried only billy clubs, as in England, or that we eliminated the death penalty, like most of the civilized world. However, as things now stand, we cannot expect to see any decline in violence when we accept the legal infliction of unnecessary violence by law enforcement officers, prison guards—and yes, even judges.

There are times when the use of Flexicuffs and bite/spit masks is legitimate and necessary. But until we forcefully oppose the misuse or overuse of such tools, we cannot reasonably expect to discourage the violent culture we ourselves have created. As Walt Kelly, creator of the Pogo cartoon, said in 1953, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”


Protection, humiliation, or both?

  1. July 17, 2014, 5:36 am

    Raphael Sperry

    Can design challenge a violent culture?

    I agree with Judge Scheindlin’s dictum that “the misuse or overuse of one tool creates a license to misuse or overuse others.” We are seeing the same pattern with governmental surveillance, where those who licensed the initial, seemingly acceptable first steps into warrantless spying had no difficulty in eventually licensing far, far more.

    I also think there are some other design features of the flexicuffs here that indicate even more of their character. As compared to the older metal handcuffs, plastic cuffs are far less expensive to purchase and much quicker to put on. They are a tool for mass arrests rather than for responding to individualized threats. Like the LRAD, they empower police over civilians, but through the economics of mass production rather than through high-tech innovation.

    Even while the design details of these small objects of violence reveal larger forces at work, any realistic attempt to respond to the larger issues of violence in our society – in this case, the frequent and unnecessary use of violence by police – can only be posed as a design problem at a broader level. The problem with the misuse of flexicuffs lies in the forces that create the situations where police act so inappropriately: forces like police training, an easy acceptance of violence as an instrument of policy (and especially foreign policy), and a broader culture housing racial prejudice and suspicious of politically dissident speech.

    Designers can do our best to help shape these forces not only in our role as citizens and voters, but also through design of the public realm. Judge Scheindlin’s call to “forcefully oppose the misuse or overuse of such [violent] tools” can inform everything from design of parks and public spaces (are they welcoming to people of all backgrounds?) to public buildings (is their design for “security” taken to mean protecting individuals or promoting control by the authorities?), signage, and even uniforms (note the increasing militarization of police outfits). In all these cases and more, designers can help to undo the violent culture we are surrounded by.

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