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Handcuff keys are cheap and easy to buy anywhere


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 1998

TAMPA -- For handcuffed suspects, freedom sometimes can be had for a few dollars at the nearest army surplus store.

Keys to standard handcuffs used by most local law enforcement officers are available from about $2 to $6 in retail stores and catalogs and through the Internet, just like police uniforms, badges and the flashing lights used on patrol cars.

"There's no laws requiring any of this stuff be protected," said Bob Thrasher, president of Thrasher's Wolf Pack Arms & Police Supplies on S Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.

Hank Earl Carr had a universal key on a chain around his neck that officers think he used to unlock his handcuffs Tuesday, just before killing two veteran Tampa detectives.

It's standard procedure to search a suspect for weapons and small items such as paper clips or razor blades that can open handcuffs. But officers say offenders determined to outsmart them have a fighting chance, especially with the availability of universal handcuff keys.

Tampa police Lt. Jane Castor said regulating the sale of handcuff keys would be like trying to limit the sale of ammunition.

"It's a problem," she said. "It's something that's difficult to control."

The universal key is popular among police because shackled inmates can be transferred to different facilities without guards having to swap keys.

But there's a price to pay for that convenience. The simple device -- a small cylinder with a tiny latch at the end -- is one more thing officers have to worry about after making an arrest.

And they can easily go undetected. Hillsborough sheriff's Capt. Rocky Rodriguez arrested a man 20 years ago who had pulled a gun on him.

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"That guy has a handcuff key inside his belt and he starts undoing his handcuffs," Rodriguez said. The man eventually fumbled and dropped the key on the ground. Otherwise, Rodriguez said, "we would never have found that key." Six months later, he said, the suspect shot dead a deputy in Georgia.

The universal key to standard, police-issue handcuffs has been around since the 1930s, said Tom Gross, author of the book Manacles of the World and a former assistant prosecutor in St. Louis. There was a recent model that required a unique key for every pair of handcuffs, he said. But it didn't sell.

"There was a huge resistance among officers," Gross said. "They just hated them because they would transport someone and, lo and behold, they couldn't get the cuffs off."

Shop owners say they don't sell many of the keys to the public. Most often, it's jail deputies or police officers who either lost a key or want to replace the one they were issued with a larger one.

But not always.

About eight years ago, a woman called Thrasher at his store and said she was joking around with a pair of handcuffs and couldn't get them off her boyfriend. It turned out he had been arrested and gotten away from police.

There are a few alternatives to the standard handcuffs, which cost about $22. But law enforcement officials said they usually avoid them because they cost more.

Plastic handcuffs with metal tabs eliminate the need for keys, but cost about $1 apiece and can be used only once because they must be cut off.

"A week's worth of work and you've spent $10," Thrasher said.

One manufacturer, Smith & Wesson Corp., makes high security handcuffs, which require a special key that fits only that model. But those go for $44 and are usually wanted only by penitentiary officers.

Thrasher said he requires proof that he is selling keys to the high security handcuffs to law enforcement officers, even though he doesn't have to.

Indeed, most safety supply shop owners don't ask too many questions of their patrons.

Said Kevin Perkins, owner of Headquarters Military Surplus on Bearss Avenue, "It's none of our business."

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