While tools of the trade may improve, sometimes old standbys work best
The police baton, which sounds lovely and delicate — like something one might conduct an orchestra with — is a necessary piece of equipment with tradition dating back to our cave-dwelling ancestors.
The police baton, nightstick, billy club, truncheon, sap, riot-stick, collapsible baton, side handle baton — whatever you call it, are all basically the same thing as a civilian’s axe handle, pool cue, shovel handle, 2-by-4, trucker “tire tester”, lead pipe, hockey stick or baseball bat. They are clubs, termed “impact weapons” and deemed in police parlance as less lethal force options. "Less lethal" meaning the weapon is not intended to kill, but in some instances their use can cause fatalities.
The police baton is a necessary weapon because officers, like the general public, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Police officers will at times have to defend themselves and arrest people much stronger or more skilled in martial arts than they.
AnnArbor.com file photo
Officers must also enter violent environments where they are outnumbered. The police baton is a force multiplier for the officer, when an officer’s firearm or deadly force is not justified. Examples of applications for police batons are: riots and crowd control, breaking up bar fights or an officer’s defense against a potentially more formidable opponent.
When I started with the Ann Arbor Police Department, we were issued a high-impact plastic nightstick and a beavertail sap.
A sap is a leather-covered, commercially manufactured blackjack, which was a smaller impact weapon that fit in a pocket tailored into the old wool uniform pants. “Sap pockets” were a discreet and thin thigh pocket from which the top strap of the sap protruded. An officer could stick his pinky finger in the strap and draw a sap with lightning speed if needed.
The nightstick on the otherhand was about 27 inches long and came with a large rubber washer squeezed on the base of the stick. When not in use, the nightstick was inserted through a metal ring on the gunbelt and did not fall straight through because of that washer. The ring was located on an officer’s non-gun side. The nightstick was normally drawn with the strong hand in a cross-draw motion — which took time and telegraphed your intent to an adversary.
While getting in and out of the police car, an officer had to remove the stick from his holder. The stick was then jammed under the seat or between the ceiling of the car and the prisoner control cage — anywhere the stick would not roll around during emergency vehicle operation.
Another problem with the nightstick was, if it was on your belt, it would launch out of its holder if you tackled a suspect. Once in a large fight, I had this happen after I tackled a suspect to arrest him. When the stick flew from its ring, that stick was now available to whoever picked it up — good or bad.
Officers walking a beat usually carried the stick instead of letting it dangle from their belt. In days before the rubber washer on the stick, they were equipped with a leather strap or thong. Beat cops, out of boredom, would swing the stick in arcs as they walked using the leather thong.
When I walked a beat I would flip my stick and catch it, that is if there was no one close by that might get struck by an errant flip. I also learned that if you tossed the plastic stick on its business end on the sidewalk, it would bounce back up so it could be caught. While walking if you added a bit of angle to the bounce, like when dribbling a basketball, the stick would come right back up into your hand.
I was practicing the nightstick bounce on Ann Arbor's Church Street one evening when the stick hit the crack or sidewalk spacer, took an bad bounce and temporarily raised my voice several octaves. My pride was damaged worse than my reproductive capacity and thankfully, no one saw my buffoonery. I refrained from nightstick bouncing after that painful lesson.
Up until the 1980s, the method of using a nightstick was to hit an adversary on the head with it to stun them. This caused many injuries, deaths and subsequent civil litigation around the world. There had to be a better way.
A Boston policeman named Arthur Lamb invented the Lamb Baton Method, where by an officer would stand in a non-threatening yet tactical position and deliver strikes to the knee of an adversary, or in some cases the clavicle, which would break the collarbone and effectively end the attack from that arm. This method was much less lethal than head strikes.
With the Lamb Method, the Ann Arbor Police Department collected the saps and plastic nightsticks and re-issued hickory wood nightsticks which seemed lighter, but did not bend like the plastic sticks had. We were also taught to use the wooden sticks as come-a-longs and hold-downs for suspects.
Cracking knees and collarbones could cause permanent injuries too, so the next generation of nightstick training was done in conjunction with Pressure Point Control Training. PPCT strikes with an impact weapon aimed to stun major motor nerves to collapse the legs of adversaries, so they can no longer fight, but do no permanent damage.
PPCT training is still what is being taught, but the wooden nightsticks have been replaced for the past 10 years or so with collapsible metal batons. This latest innovation of the nightstick collapses into three sections and fits in a benign looking leather or plastic holder on a police officer’s gun belt. An officer can enter and exit his or her car without removing this type of baton—so it is always on the officer's gunbelt.
The collapsible baton is pulled from the holster and, with an extreme snap of the officer’s wrist, opens into a 27-inch nightstick. Usually the loud opening of the baton is enough to dissuade an adversary from continued resistance, but if not the stick is again supposed to be directed at non-vital organs and major junctions of motor nerves.
That is all well and good until the fight is on. Sometimes those motor nerve junctions or pressure points are hard to hit on a moving and actively fighting target. The baton inadvertently becomes a club again and vital organs, like the head, can be struck.
I have often threatened use of a nightstick, but the only times I ever struck anyone with a baton was during NCAA Basketball Final Four celebrations. Several times I cracked some knees on the base of human pyramids trying, for whatever reason, to hang on or pull down the traffic signal at Church and South University. I also hit a guy on the lower leg, so hard I thought my stick broke, when he tried to climb on top of a fire engine.
Nightsticks are necessary and effective weapons, but TASERS are much safer in my opinion. A TASER reaches out farther, they stop aggressive behavior immediately, and once the current is turned off, there is no more pain and the device leaves only two bee-sting-sized marks where the electric probes entered the skin.
Alas TASERs sometimes malfunction and can not defend against multiple adversaries. For a street cop, at times the lowest tech, the ancient option, is still the best tool for the job.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.
Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for AnnArbor.com.