Law enforcement exists to keep society safe from criminals, which means apprehending and arresting those who would do harm. Police manhunts for wanted criminals are daily occurrences throughout America and Canada. Most manhunts are routine police work and garner little public attention.
Thanks to TV shows like America's Most Wanted and its local spin-offs, a select few police manhunts catch the public's eye. However, there's one manhunt type that dwarfs all others—usually preceded by the adjectives "massive" and "intense."
The most famous is the 2002 Washington, D.C. sniper manhunt. For three weeks, the snipings that killed 10 and wounded three people paralyzed the entire D.C. region. Every law enforcement agency in the area—municipal, state, and federal—combined resources to stop the snipings, and a tip from an alert citizen caught the snipers, ending the reign of terror.
2005–2006, Phoenix, Ariz.—Snipers killed six people before finally being apprehended following one of the biggest manhunts in Arizona history.
March 5–6, 2009, Cleveland, Ohio—A domestic gone horribly bad. A male shoots and kills five people, including three children, and wounds one child, launching one of the biggest, most intense manhunts in Cleveland history. After 21 hours and numerous tips, stakeouts, and searches later, the suspect was discovered cowering in a bathroom where he killed himself as police closed in on him.
Ranking among the most intense and massive manhunts are those for cop killers. Anyone willing to kill or shoot police won't hesitate to kill anyone else—especially cops.
Normal policing grinds to a near halt as all LE resources from entire regions focus on catching cop killers. This means massive searches of areas and buildings, saturation patrol, vehicle and pedestrian stops, stakeouts, checkpoints, and roadblocks. You'll likely get tips from the public and see massive live media coverage reporting every development. All this adds to the intensity and urgency surrounding cop killer manhunts.
Massive, intense manhunts often lead to armed, sometimes deadly, confrontations with desperately dangerous suspects. Perhaps the most famous was the 1974 Symbionese Liberation Army shootout with LAPD SWAT. The culmination of an intense manhunt, the SLA chose to shoot it out rather than surrender. In the process, all six SLA members involved were killed, but miraculously no police officers or civilians were.
What can you expect if you find yourself involved in these intensive, massive manhunts? First, you'll almost immediately jump from your usual condition yellow alert level up to condition orange—fully expecting violent confrontation at any moment. That's where you'll remain the entire time you're involved in the manhunt.
If there's such a thing as degrees of orange, you'll discover this with every reported, dispatched, or on view sighting. Merely responding to reported sightings is enough to pump up your adrenaline volume to bright orange.
If you're on scene, and the sighting is verified, expect to reach near condition red, with all your senses razor sharp in expectation of armed confrontation at any time, with every step or turn you take.
This is when your training, tactics, teamwork, and experience pay off—combining to give you the level of confidence to prevail. This is also a good time to do your tactical breathing to slow down your adrenaline overload. The more in control you are, the better your odds of winning.
What else can you expect from these manhunts? Outside LE agencies flooding in to assist in the manhunt. Many will be in marked vehicles and uniforms, but others will be in unmarked cars and plain clothes. Officers unfamiliar with the area, and who are unfamiliar to other officers, may be on different radio frequencies and unable to communicate directly.
A supervisor will establish a temporary field command post, replaced eventually by a dedicated, staffed Mobile Command Post, with a command-level officer in charge of coordinating the manhunt activities. Activities will include working in conjunction with dispatch for response to the flood of reported suspect(s) sightings that will be pouring in.
It's highly recommended that every responding agency and sub unit provide its own supervisors or designated team leader. This ensures accountability, reduces radio traffic, and improves coordination. All of which are important to counter the expected near chaos and confusion that often accompany major manhunts.
SWAT, by its design, training, equipment, and weaponry, will undoubtedly be called upon, or volunteer, to handle subsequent searches, barricades and hostages, etc. SWAT team leaders need to ensure that team integrity, training, and tactics are maintained—in spite of any outside pressure to the contrary.
The events that necessitate massive, intense manhunts occur suddenly and violently. As I wrote this column, yet another deadly shooting rampage was taking place. This time in southern Alabama, where an armed suspect shot and killed 11 people, wounded others, and shot at and narrowly missed others, including at least two law enforcement officers. The deadly spree, spread over four towns and two counties, ended with the suspect's death.
Whether it's small towns in Alabama or major cities like Cleveland, deadly shooting rampages are occurring at an alarming rate. Although we can't predict where or when deadly rampages will occur, what's certain is they will occur—somewhere—because no one is immune.
The only question when they happen is will you be ready? If not, get ready—now.