The NYPD over-tightened plastic handcuffs while making thousands of arrests during recent protests against police brutality — leaving some people with lingering damage weeks later, dozens of demonstrators say.

Derek Baron said NYPD officers slammed him to the ground during a protest on June 4 in The Bronx, and then put him in extra-tight plastic handcuffs, according to testimony he submitted to Attorney General Letitia James’ office. 

As he sat for over an hour with blood streaming down his face from what he would later learn was a broken nose, Baron said his arresting officer ignored his pleas to loosen his painful cuffs. 

Another officer told him that he’d have to “wait it out” because they lacked the tools to cut anyone loose, according to Baron.

It took several hours before his cuffs were replaced — and 11 days later, his hands still numb, Baron visited a hand surgeon to investigate possible nerve damage. Baron declined to comment further on his testimony, citing pending litigation. 

Dr. Michaela Martinez, an infectious disease ecologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, said she operated as a “street medic” at the same June 4 protest, where she was also arrested. 

Even though she was already in pain from the plastic cuffs that cops had put on her, an officer came back and tightened them again, she said. 

“Within like a couple minutes, I was like: My hand’s tingling,” Martinez told THE CITY. “I said, ‘Can you take it off? Can you change it?’ And she [the cop] was like, ‘No, I don’t have the tools.’”

‘Slowly Regaining Feeling’

Protester Kevin Kelly told THE CITY that when he was detained on June 3 near 53rd Street and Third Avenue, an officer put the zip-tie type restraints tightly over his wristwatch, compounding the pain.

Anguished, he said he asked fellow demonstrators next to him in an NYPD van to look at his hands and “they screamed, because I guess my hands were swollen a lot,” Kelly told THE CITY.

An officer was able to remove Kelly’s watch, offering a modicum of relief. But the officer didn’t have the tool to remove the cuffs. Kelly was told that “we have to wait till we get to the precinct — that’s where they have the snips.” 

He said he sat in a van for four or five hours before arriving at a precinct where his cuffs were finally cut. 

Over a month later, Kelly said his hand is still not fully recovered. “I’m slowly regaining feeling in it,” he said.

Kevin Kelly said his hand became swollen after NYPD officers arrested him using zip-tie style handcuffs. Credit: Photo Courtesy of Kevin Kelly

Holly Gunder spent over six hours in plastic handcuffs after being arrested near the Manhattan Bridge during protests on June 2, according to her testimony to James’ office. Shortly after being arrested, her first pair of restraints were removed so officers could take her backpack off her shoulders. 

As Gunder’s wrists were being put in a new set of plastic ties, “my arresting officer was instructed to make them tighter by another officer,” she wrote in her testimony — adding that the restraints  “do hurt as much as people say.”

Under Investigation

In a preliminary report released July 8 on the NYPD’s handling of the protests in late May and early June, James’ office said it had received “a significant number of complaints about troubling arrest-related practices, including, among others, using extremely tight plastic zip ties to restrict hands.”

The report, which made five recommendations for reforming the NYPD, said the investigation of such arrest practices is ongoing.

Dozens of people arrested in anti-police brutality protests have detailed their suffering from plastic handcuffs — commonly known as flexcuffs — in testimony at both the hearing by James and at an earlier hearing held by the New York City Council. 

Many said they sat in overly-tightened plastic cuffs for long periods of time — some for more than six hours — as they waited for transportation and processing. 

Improper use of zip tie cuffs brings risk of permanent injury, since nerves in the wrist track in compartments that are sensitive to pressure and damage.

A number of nurses attending the demonstrations as “street medics” testified to seeing hands swollen and turning blue, then purple, and were denied the opportunity to provide medical assistance prior to being arrested themselves. 

Others charged NYPD officers deliberately tightened restraints further, possibly as a retaliatory measure.

‘They’re Dangerous’

The alleged behavior is nothing new, says Chris Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. 

In past reviews his office conducted of NYPD practices at the Iraq War protests in 2003 and the Republican National Convention in 2004, flexcuffs featured as a common source of abuse for those arrested. 

In both reports, the NYCLU recommended the department review its use of the plastic cuffs, especially concerning the duration of use. 

“The city paid considerable damages in part because people are injured from the use of flexcuffs,” said Dunn.

Police officers toting flexcuffs follow a group of protesters down Flatbush Avenue, June 2, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Despite these reports and recommendations, Dunn said, he is unaware of any serious effort by the NYPD to review their use of plastic restraints. The NYPD didn’t respond to questions about whether it has ever conducted such a review.

“There’s a real question whether or not they should be using flexcuffs at all,” said Dunn. “I mean, they are efficient, to be sure, but they’re dangerous and the department knows they’re dangerous,” he added. “The problem is that you don’t need to have a malicious police officer for flexcuffs to be put on too tightly and to do real damage to somebody.”

One-Way Harm

James Mulvany, an adjunct professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that plastic wrist restraints are uniquely dangerous.

Compared to metal handcuffs, flexcuffs “are harder to calibrate,” Mulvany told THE CITY — making it more difficult to determine the proper fit when arresting a suspect. 

He noted many flexcuffs lack a mechanism called a “double-lock,” which is standard on metal handcuffs to prevent restraints from being tightened further. 

“Zip ties can get tighter if you struggle,” he said.

A Black Lives Matter march on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, May 31, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Yet, police officers are supposed to be trained to avoid these types of injuries, according to Ron Martinelli, a forensic criminologist and former police officer in California, who has conducted thousands of trainings on arrest and handcuff tactics.

“They learn that the tight application of handcuffs can cause damage to the bones or, more importantly, to the wrists,” Martinelli told THE CITY. “They learn how to apply the handcuffs and adjust for fit and double lock the handcuffs.”

Flexcuffs are supposed to be used for only short periods of time and should be placed with an officer’s finger between the plastic and the suspect’s wrist to ensure appropriate fit, he noted.

Martinelli said he trains officers to immediately adjust or reapply any sort of restraint if there are signs of damage, such as swelling, discoloration of hands or verbal complaints of pain. 

If an officer were to do the opposite, and deliberately tighten restraints further, “that’s an error of maliciousness,” said Martinelli, “and that’s definitely a violation of civil rights.”

Martinelli also noted that he carried his own set of cutters whenever he knew he might have to arrest someone using plastic cuffs.

“It’s common sense,” he said.

The NYPD uses two types of flexcuffs, according to a department spokesperson, including one that does not have a double lock mechanism.  

Neurological Damage

Dr. Arthur Grant, a professor of neurology at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, published one of the few studies of neurological damage from handcuff abuse

He and his partner examined 41 patients with metal handcuff injuries at Grady Memorial Hospital near Atlanta and found “the prevalence of nerve injury that resulted from over-tightened handcuffs was much higher than I and my colleague expected,” Grant told THE CITY. 

His study took place 20 years ago, before the widespread use of double-locking handcuffs. Grant attributed the nerve damage to inadvertent tightening from a struggling detainee. But the study makes clear that the “deliberate over-tightening as a form of ‘in the street’ punishment” was a factor.

Grant explained that both the duration and amount of compression on nerves in the wrist directly determine the risk of permanent damage.

Damage to nerves can occur in two ways: through a lack of blood by restricting circulation for extended periods of time, and through the physical destruction of the nerves themselves. 

Nerves, Grant explained, are similar to insulated wiring in that they have a membrane around them. 

“So if the compression or the injury to the nerve does not destroy that outer sheath,” said Grant, “it’s much easier even for the nerves to regrow because they just regrow within that sheath, which is still intact.” 

Lingering Pain

Permanent damage is much more likely if this membrane is compromised, Grant explained. “If the injury from the handcuff destroys that sheath, then the nerves don’t know where to grow,” giving the victim a “much less chance of functional recovery.” 

The most commonly affected nerve is the superficial radial nerve, which Grant says is responsible for relaying sensory information for the thumb and index finger, and can have a substantial effect on fine motor skills and dexterity. 

In 2003, a surgeon sued the Los Angeles Police Department for damages from false arrest and improperly applied handcuffs, and was initially awarded $14 million in a jury trial. Another surgeon sued the LAPD for injuries from over-tightened handcuffs during an arrest in 2014, claiming to be unable to continue practicing medicine as a result.

Protesters chant “Hands up, don’t shoot!” at NYPD officers while marching along Canal Street, May 31, 2020. Credit: Christine Chung/THE CITY

In New York City, Geoffery Cohen, an attorney at Cohen and Fitch LLP, says that handcuff and flexcuff abuse are common issues at his firm — which gained fame for a $75 million NYPD settlement in a class action over stop-and-frisk. 

Cohen is considering filing a class action suit in response to the recent widespread complaints of injuries from flexcuffs. 

“We see individuals who have experienced a retaliatory action by the police because they don’t like what the individual is saying, or the way they’re behaving,” said Cohen. “They’ll tighten the handcuffs. And we have clients who’ve told us we begged for the handcuffs to be loosened and the cops refuse to loosen them.”

Rob Goyanes was arrested during a June 4 Black Lives Matter demonstration in The Bronx. He told THE CITY that officers punched him multiple times as he peacefully marched, then tightly applied plastic cuffs to his wrists. 

A month later, the pain and numbness in his hand still lingered. An urgent care center Goyanes went to said it was too early to tell if the nerves have been permanently compromised — it can take up to six months for nerve damage to resolve. 

“I think they were definitely trying to send a message to anyone who was making the demands that we were making,” Goyanes said of the police. “The zip ties were just a tool of cruelty that they were using.”