Building search is one of the most dangerous assignments that you will face in your career as a police officer. Suspects hidden in buildings have some potentially deadly advantages over you: They know where they are, the know their numbers, they know if they are armed, and they can wait for you to come to them or remain concealed until you leave.
Another disadvantage that you face when searching a building is the complexity of a building itself. Let’s do the following little exercise to show you what I mean.
Take a good look at your home; consider all its nooks, crannies, closets, cabinets, etc. Now imagine yourself entering this dwelling and searching for a concealed and possibly armed subject. There are a lot of great hiding places, right? And that’s just in your home, which if it’s like most homes has a pretty simple floor plan.
Now consider how much more difficult and even more dangerous it would be to search for one or more concealed and possibly armed subjects inside even a small office building, warehouse, or store. Such commercial buildings are filled with lots of places where a bad guy can hide and wait to spring an ambush on unwary officers.
I want you to be aware of the dangers you face in a building search. That’s why I have spent a good portion of the last few years writing my new book “Building Search: Tactics for the Patrol Officer,” which contains what I have learned in my more than 39 years of experience as a patrol officer, SWAT officer, and instructor.
My book covers such topics as preparing to conduct a search, devising a tactical search plan, search tactics, control and arrest tactics, and much more. The following discussion of how to properly move while conducting a building search is taken from Chapter 6, “Entry and Movement.”
Moving Along Walls
When talking about moving along walls, there are some who advocate that you literally “hug” the wall as you move down a hallway or around a room. They also say that you should take a position against a wall while dominating a room.
I believe this is a bad technique and that it seriously violates good officer safety tactics. You should never hug a wall or brush against it as you move. The proper tactic is to stay eight inches to 12 inches from the wall while you manueuver.
Here’s why I believe separating yourself from the wall is the best movement tactic.
Realistically, it is almost impossible to move around a room using a wall because of the obstacles contained in the room. So the most likely places you will be able to move down a wall are hallways and enclosed stairwells.
The wall-hugging technique has the following problems:
• It gives you a false sense of security, making you believe you have cover because you are against a solid object. But don’t fool yourself. Bullets and certain edged weapons can easily penetrate an inner or even outer wall.
• It makes you vulnerable to ricochets. Today’s construction materials make it easy to ricochet a bullet off an inside or outside wall. Depending on the angle at which it is fired, a ricocheting bullet will travel four inches to eight inches from the wall as it traverses down the wall. If you are against the wall, then obviously that bullet will strike you.
• It’s likely to give away your position. Plaster, drywall, or similar construction materials transmit sound. When you brush against the wall as you move, you transmit your movement down and through the wall.
Surprisingly, if the wall is a connecting wall, this movement can be heard one or two rooms away. Your movements are easily followed from inside the room or hallway the wall separates, thereby giving suspects the advantage.
• It leads to bad tactics. When you move against the wall, either as a part of your room-clearing technique or while dominating the room with your weapon, the natural tendency is to use the wall for balance. Even though it may be subconscious on your part, this reliance on the wall limits your maneuverability, preventing you from being able to pivot or move about freely in either direction to address a problem area.
Down a Hallway
Hallways should always be approached cautiously by the search team. Stop, look, and listen frequently before exposing yourself to the entrance or junctions of hallways. Use a mirror or “slice-the-pie” to clear these areas.
One of the safer methods for moving down a hallway is to have the cover officer remain at the entry way behind cover or concealment and dominate the hallway with his or her weapon while the search officer moves down the hallway to the next point of entry or location to be searched. This is a cover and movement tactic that permits limited exposure to you as the hallway is being traversed.
When using this tactic, the search officer must move down the opposite side of the hallway his or her partner is dominating. Move slowly, systematically, and quietly, maintaining a low profile. Once the search officer has reached the desired location, he or she motions the cover officer forward to the new position and covers the cover officer’s movement.
If the members of the search team choose to clear the hallway together, they must move in a coordinated effort, slowly, systematically, and quietly. This tactic is sometimes referred to as the stagger or offset method of clearing an area. When tactically possible, they should maintain five feet to 10 feet between them while moving and present a low profile. With this technique, the cover officer is offset from the search officer, thus allowing for officer separation and clear fields of fire.
Hallways are present in almost every building you will search. So plan what movement to use before being confronted with a hallway.
And remember, all hallways may not be wide enough to permit two officers to enter at the same time, or work together using the stagger or leapfrog method in a safe manner. Because of this possibility, you should have an alternate movement plan if the original plan doesn’t fit the situation.
Up and Down the Stairs
Approach all stairways cautiously. That means stop, look, and listen before exposing yourself to the entrance of a stairway. One of your search team officers should use a mirror or slice-the-pie to clear the stairway access or entrance.
When moving up or down stairways, you will be confronted with multiple problems.
Some believe moving down a stairway is easier than moving up a stairway. But I believe it is easier to move up a stairway.
Moving up a stairway you have the advantage of balance, coordination, and a good field of vision. Moving down a stairway, you lose the advantage of balance, coordination, and a good field of vision because your body is at an unusual angle, i.e., trying to bend down to see as you move down the stairwell. When tactically possible, I recommend clearing stairways from the bottom up to enhance your officer safety capabilities.
• If the stairway is enclosed all the way to the top or bottom, it is like a hallway and can be traversed by using the hallway domination clearing method.
• If it is open all the way to the top or bottom, using a mirror or dominating from the entry access point are two options the search team may consider to safely traverse the open space whether going up or down.
• If the stairway has a landing or cuts back at a right or left turn at a 90-degree angle over the primary stairway, there is a tactical consideration that must be understood before you can clear and traverse the stairway safely. You have to see what is happening in that stairway. Use a mirror attached to the end of your baton or a mirror that extends to observe the area. This will reduce the chance of a suspect seeing you as you come up the stairs.
Your search team may choose the open stairway clearing method, using weapon domination and mirrors. Or you may choose to traverse together, one officer moving backwards, facing up toward the cutback area, while the other moves forward, facing the landing to the cutback as you both move simultaneously up the stairs.
If this is your preferred method, I strongly recommend the use of a mirror at the landing and cutback areas. Suspects can position themselves on a stair recess above where the search team is approaching and, with relative ease, conceal themselves until it is too late for the search team to effectively react to their presence.
When simultaneously moving up or down the stairs, move in a coordinated effort, slowly, systematically, and quietly. Maintain a distance of five feet to 10 feet between officers when tactically possible and present a low profile, with the cover officer offset from the search officer. Also, be sure to maintain officer separation and clear fields of fire, and remember to stay eight inches to 12 inches off the wall.
Note: Using the leapfrog method in a stairway can cause too much congestion, creating an officer safety issue of crossfire and jamming the search team together.
A final word about stairs. I do not recommend officers lie on their backs to clear a stairway. Although this tactic has been advocated by some, I feel it places the officer at a distinct disadvantage.
Lying on your back is not a natural position for moving in a tactical manner. When on your back, you have to think about how to push yourself up the stairway while trying to concentrate on what problem area you may be encountering, and this will cause you to lose the edge you need to stay alert to danger. Also, this position makes it extremely difficult to successfully maneuver out of danger if it presents itself.
When formulating the search plan, always consider that stairways may be present in the building. Discuss a possible stairway-clearing method before you make your entry.
Even if a building is just a single story, a stairway could exist. For example, the building may have an attic access, a basement, or a cellar that is unknown to the search team until entry has been made.
Above all else, take your time as you search stairways. Don’t hurry yourself and become frustrated because you can’t go up or down stairs in a normal manner.
Additional Safety Points
Regardless of which entry and clearing method you use, do not pass open or closed doorways, closets, or cupboards without searching and/or securing them first.
When doors are located across from each other, or so near each other that they prevent the search team from searching and securing them safely, the team must decide which room to enter first. Once that decision is made, wedge or tie off the opposite door or doors. Do this in such a manner that a suspect would have to use considerable force to open the door, allowing you to hear the disturbance and direct your attention to the threat.
The most important thing for you to remember when conducting a building search is to to never compromise officer safety for the sake of simplicity or to save time and effort. To accomplish the mission successfully, officer safety must not be jeopardized beyond the capabilities of the search team, or to the extent the risk is greater than the result.
Capt. James D. Stalnaker of the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department has more than 39 years of experience in law enforcement. He is an FBI-qualified sniper, a SWAT team leader, a law enforcement instructor, and a member of the TREXPO Advisory Board. He is also author of “Building Search: Tactics for the Patrol Officer,” available at www.varropress.com.