Photo: James Harbison.
Editor's note: View our related photo gallery, "Safe Pat-Down Searches."
Searching people in a standing position is something deputies and officers do every day across the nation. We search people in a variety of field situations and legal circumstances. But for the purpose of this article, I am going to focus on what is commonly referred to as a pat search or Terry search for weapons. As far as officer safety skills are concerned, I believe pat search techniques to be one of the most critical skills given too little emphasis in training, and therefore worthy of analysis.
Searching people in the field for readily accessible weapons is a tactical necessity to keep us safe. It is also a high frequency activity. When analyzing the risk, it's important to pay attention to what happens to law enforcement officers when we are attacked. According to the 2009 edition of the FBI's Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 81.4 percent of the 590,507 officers assaulted in 2009 were attacked by an assailant using personal weapons (e.g. hands, fists, or feet), resulting in the highest percentage of injuries to the officers. This statistic is consistent with the FBI statistics from the previous 10 years, and therefore a fairly reliable indicator of future trends.
How does this fit within the context of a pat search? If you think about it, in order to attack an officer with personal weapons, the assailant must be close enough to strike or grapple, the same distance you are at when you search a person. So how can you protect yourself when you do your search? Use a method or technique that meets three key objectives: safe, effective, and expedient.
By safe, I mean that which exposes you to the minimal amount of risk. By effective, I mean that which affords the best opportunity to find what you are looking for. By expedient, I mean simple and quick, though not at the expense of safety or effectiveness. Your chosen method should facilitate not only a safe and effective search, but also other force options such as control holds, take-down techniques, and handcuffing.
Although I normally refrain from offering a "best" or "safest" technique, pat searching will be my exception. I will explain the three critical components of the search technique, and why these are so important to your safety.
The technique I am presenting is referred to simply as the Standing Basic Search. Control is the primary issue in conducting a safe search. The Standing Basic Search represents the minimal level of control you are willing to establish over a person while searching him or her. Focusing on the Standing Basic Search, there are three keys to control:
- Position the body
- Limit the mobility
- Control the hands
Position the Body
Because we are innately geared toward forward movement, most aggressors, whether formally trained or not, will attack in a forward direction. Therefore, you are safer positioning yourself behind the person, rather than in front. Positioning yourself behind does not preclude a rearward attack (e.g. a rear kick, or rear elbow), but combined with the remaining two keys to control, greatly reduces a suspect's ability to attack you effectively.
Stance is also a factor in positioning. Since you search with your hands, you must be close enough to touch the areas you intend to search. In the Standing Basic Search, you will stand with your gun leg back in a balanced and bladed stance. This stance gives you the ability to create some space between your gun and the person you are searching. It also provides a platform for mobility and appropriate defensive reactions.