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Bob Parker

Bob Parker

Lt. Robert Parker served with the Omaha (Neb.) PD for 30 years and commanded the Emergency Response Unit. He is responsible for training thousands of law enforcement instructors in NTOA's Patrol Response to Active Shooters courses.

Jose Medina

Jose Medina

Officer Jose Medina is an active member of the Piscataway (N.J.) Police Department's SWAT team and runs Awareness Protective Consultants (Team APC) tactical training.

Searching for Hidden Suspects

Mastering searches of hidden cavities in buildings and wooded areas is a fundamental tactical skill.

December 13, 2010  |  by Robert O'Brien - Also by this author

Photo by Alex Landeen.

One of the most basic, common, and hazardous activities in law enforcement is suspect searches. Regardless of assignment, virtually every field officer sooner or later will get involved in suspect searches.  Locations can range from buildings to the outdoors, and in every conceivable configuration.

While suspect searches are taught in basic and often in-service police academies, it's OJT (on the job training) where most LEOs hone their suspect-search skills. The fact is there's little written about suspect search tactics and techniques.

This is why I was pleasantly surprised when I got my November issue of POLICE Magazine and read the cover story, "Duty Dangers: Into the Hearts of Darkness" by Dean Scoville.

Dean's article is one of the best on this vitally important topic. Anyone who's ever had to search a building — with all its hidden recesses for dangerous, armed suspects — understands the danger and stress of such searches.

Dean has definitely done his search homework, including insight from experts and experience. While primarily geared toward line officers, the article also applies to SWAT. There's no more common a SWAT activity than suspect searches.

Oftentimes the most dangerous part of any suspect search involves those areas where suspects tend to hide. Attics, basements, closets, crawl spaces, over/under/inside practically everything imaginable is where suspects hide.

Dean recommends calling out SWAT for dangerous suspect searches. In part, because SWAT is usually better trained and equipped - that often includes specialized equipment to help ferret out hidden suspects with limited exposure to officers.

Another search tool available to many LE agencies are K-9s, often working in conjunction with SWAT.

"Into the Hearts of Darkness" is must read for all law enforcement officers, including tactical oficers. The article covers the basics, and applies them to the hazards of hidden or confined spaces where suspects often hide. As with any professional, we're only as good as how well we do the basics.

Our basics don't involve skills such as blocking, tackling, passing and receiving. Instead, basics in suspect searches involve a deadly serious "game of hide and seek," where the consequences for mistakes can be dire or deadly.

I'd say every SWAT team trains extensively on suspect searches with special emphasis on the terrain they're dealing with. In urban areas, emphasis would likely be on building searches, while in rural areas, the emphasis would instead be on outdoor/wooded/open areas. However, regardless of terrain type, every SWAT team must be adept at searching buildings and outdoor terrain.

Dean's article focuses on building searches, and more specifically those hidden crevices where suspects prefer to hide from police. As such, I consider "Into the Hearts of Darkness" must-read reference for everyone in law enforcement including SWAT.

I consider the article a companion to the excellent book, "Building Search: Tactics for the Patrol Officer" by Capt. James Stalnaker (Ret.) of the San Bernardino (Calif.) County Sheriff's Office. In his 39 years in law enforcement, Stalnaker served as the training coordinator for his tactical team. The book features other than Richard "Mack" Machewicz, the former U.S. Navy SEAL and host of "Future Weapons," posing in many of the photos.

Together, the article and book are definitive "bookends" of building searches and contain a wealth of proven effective, common-sense tactics, techniques, and tips based on experience, training, and in some instances, tragedy.

These tragedies might have been prevented had SWAT been called out to handle the situation. Why SWAT? The way Dean Scoville puts it is, "Most tactical teams have the weaponry, shields, and sophisticated surveillance tools such as pole cameras to mitigate the hazards of such a search."

I'd add that tactical teams have the luxury of being able to train far more extensively than most other LEOs can.

"It comes back to the three T's: time, tactics, and troops," says Don Alwes, expert trainer with the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA).

Alwes has encapsulated what SWAT is all about, and why SWAT should be called out to handle dangerous suspect searches that place great pressure on SWAT to be able to do the job, and do it safely and successfully.

There was a saying in SWAT's early days that may best describe SWAT's responsibility, "When citizens are in trouble, they call police. When police are in trouble, they call SWAT."

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