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He’s Often on the Right Track

A retired 25-year veteran of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission began teaching mantracking skills in 1979. Since then, he has taught this unique ability to thousands of state and local police officers.

September 01, 1998  |  by Lt. Bob Lee

A retired 25-year veteran of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission began teaching mantracking skills in 1979.  Since then, he has taught this unique ability to thousands of state and local police officers.

Have you ever been left standing, gasping for breath, wondering which way he went?  Looking around, you do a cursory search for the suspect's tracks, but other than that, you call the K-9 team and leave it to them.  What happens, however, when a K-9 unit is not available, or the suspect has to be backtracked in order to establish a case against him or her?  Backtracking is a job that most K-9s are not trained for, and most officers will refuse to put their dog on a track unless it is going forward.

Of course, if your patrol beat is strictly concrete and pavement, your only hope may be a K-9.  But for most officers, even city cops, there are certain areas within their patrol district that lend themselves to tracking.  Parks and wooded lots have always been ideal places for fleeing suspects to hide or conceal evidence.

Following a person's track over uneven terrain can be difficult and often times frustrating.  A high level of proficiency requires a sense of detail and concentration, as well as an eye for the minutiae.  It is a skill not taught at most police academies.  If it is learned at all, it's through on-the-job training, and is not developed to a high level of perfection, given the hectic pace most police officers work under.  However, in the world of wildlife law enforcement, mantracking is still frequently used.  Given these opportunities to practice and improve, most wildlife officers have extensive skills in this area.

A Unique Level of Ability

Some, such as Lt. Jack Polk, a 25-year retired veteran of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (GFC), have reached the highest level of skill in this area.  In his early years with the GFC, Polk was schooled in tracking techniques passed down to him by other wildlife officers.  Over the years, Polk used these techniques as an initial building block to refine and improve his own tracking skills.

In 1979, Polk began teaching mantracking to Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents assigned to the marijuana eradication program.  Since then, he has taught mantracking to thousands of state and local police officers, and has taught at the Federal Law Enforcement Academy in Glenco, Ga.

Recognized as one of the most highly skilled trackers in the country, Polk's instructional techniques are thorough.  He starts his classes off with a slide presentation depicting vegetation damage that occurs when someone has walked on, around, or through different types of grasses, standing weeds and brush.  He then explains in detail the most important tool used in tracking-the tracking stick.

Polk emphasizes that anyone who wants to seriously track, whether the target be a person or game animal, should get a stick.  The one Polk likes to use is about chin height, standing from the ground.  It has two homemade O-rings, cut from lawnmower inner tubes, on the shaft, which are adjustable.

The purpose of the tracking stick is simple.  It is used as an aid to the eye, to help it stay focused on the next track ahead.  This is done by first taking the stick and placing it on two known tracks.  Using a human foot track, the stick's tip is placed on the toe of one track, then the first O-ring is slid down to the heel of that same track.  This measures the length of an individual footprint and is used to distinguish the identity of one person in areas of mixed footprint traffic.

Next, the most important measurement is taken by placing the stick's tip on the heel of the second track, then sliding the second O-ring down to the toe of the first track.  Once this measurement has been made, the stride is determined and should remain constant.

After his initial explanation of how the tracking stick works, Polk quickly explains to his students that a fancy stick like his is not necessary at all.  Actually, it is much easier to fashion a green tracking stick from a young tree sapling or shrub that is growing fairly straight.  Once the stick is broken off, he trims it to about three feet in length, then lays it on two known foot impressions, notching the stick to measure stride.  Using a green tracking stick also carries the additional advantage of being less likely to be challenged by defense attorneys in court, due to the notched measurement being unique to the stride of a person.

Stick Not Always Needed

The stick is not necessary when tracking is along easy terrain such as a sandy road or mud flat.  However, when tracking across a difficult area, such as the leafy floor in a hammock or across a carpet of pine needles, it becomes a necessity.  In order to proceed in such difficult areas, the tracker kneels down to the last easily sighted, known track and places the stick with the notch at the toe of a shoe or barefoot track.  From this point, the stick is moved in a slow arc in front of the first track, with the tracker's eye focusing on the ground beneath the stick's tip.  In this way, the eye only has to search the ground along the curve of the arc, enabling it to detect faint impressions of the next track ahead.

"If it's real faint, you can get down there with it," Polk said.  "As the eye learns what to look for you can do it standing up.  It's a process of teaching the eye what to look for, but it's not 100 percent.  Nothing is ever 100 percent.  Geronimo couldn't do it all the time."

Some terrain may be too hard or dry to reveal any sign of a person walking across it.  in these instances, it's best to mark the last known track, then work in ever larger circles, looking for the next detectable sign.  While working in South Florida, Polk often relied on this technique when tracking individuals across exposed limestone.

Polk takes one of his classes out into the field, the first thing he does is demonstrate the use of the tracking stick.  "A lot of these officers from other law enforcement agencies are kind of dubious about it so I tell one of the students to lay the track.  Then I turn my back on him," he said.  "The rest of the class sees that I have no idea where he went."  Using the stick, Polk successfully follows the student's track across a freshly mowed field of grass, capturing the other students' attention along the way.

People unfamiliar with tracking may be skeptical when first trying to grapple with Polk's keen ability of tracking across grass.  He is able to accomplish this feat by visually recognizing almost imperceptible damage in the impressions left by a human walking across grass.  Other clues, such as when grass is pushed and folded together causing it to be laced in a certain direction, help him complete the visually faint impression of a human footprint.

Intelligent Use of Light

Polk also teaches his students how to use light to their advantage.  "Most people think the sunlight should be on their backs.  That's not true," he said.  "I take them outside to where a track is and let them circle it 360 degrees.  They see how the track disappears when the sun is on their backs, but when it is in front of them, the shadows appear in the track to make it distinguishable."  To illustrate how this technique might be used in actual application, he tells students they should always try to drive into the sun when looking for a track along a dirt road.  If that is not possible, using wide-angle rearview mirrors in a patrol vehicle to help reveal the tracks they have just passed works just as well.

As the class progresses, students not only learn to track someone, but also pick up certain physical characteristics of the person they're tracking.  People have different wear spots on the soles of their shoes, and this will indicate it they walk on the inside or outside of their feet.  Some people walk splay footed, or are pigeon toed.  Then there are those who favor one leg due to an injury.

The Team Approach

Polk likes to put a team of three officers together when working a track that may go on for hours, or when multiple suspects are involved.  One officer is assigned as the primary tracker while two officers, one on each side of the primary tracker, do a peripheral search for discarded articles or other signs.  When working in terrain that is tricky and uncertain, an officer doing the peripheral search will hold the last positive track, while the primary tracker works on picking up the next positive track.  "It works like a relay," Polk said.

Working in the vast Applalachicola National Forest has given Polk and his troops plenty of opportunity to hone their skills.  What impresses them the most is when a suspect initially gets away: By tracking the individual and finding articles he or she hid or threw away, they gather enough evidence to obtain an arrest warrant.

A federal court case involving major marijuana growers illustrates this point very well.  Two wildlife officers and two U.S. Forestry agents were working a surveillance of a large marijuana patch in a remote area of the Appalachicola National Forest.  Early one morning, three men slipped into the patch and began working on it.  Suddenly, the men bolted.  One ran back to a vehicle hidden nearby, while the other two split up, running on foot into the forest.  "We're not sure why they got spooked, but we think they heard the shutter of a camera go off," Polk said.

The suspect attempting to escape in the vehicle was stopped on a dirt road not far from the patch.  Polk and his officers were called to track backward from where the vehicle was stopped.  "We backtracked the vehicle's tire sign on foot and found where the driver had thrown a stash of marijuana out," he said.  "We could put it to him because there hadn't been anybody on the road but him."

Polk eventually backtracked the vehicle to where it had been parked.  Then he followed the driver's foot sign that led to the marijuana patch the officers had been working a surveillance on.  "Before we started forward tracking the two suspects that got away, we had to backtrack the group to all the parches they had visited," he said.  That had to be done in order to anchor the case against the suspect they had captured.

The suspects had visited nine patches that morning, spaced about three-fourths of a mile apart, and totaling thousands of plants.  Despite that, Polk and his officers followed the group every step of the way.  They could not positively tie ever patch to the suspects, because some of the foot signs at the sites were mere scuff marks.  However, they did connect three of the sires to the suspects, totaling well over  thousand plants.

Having located all of the patches, Polk returned to the original patch at night, and began forward tracking one of the two suspects who had escaped on foot.  There wasn't enough time to track both.  They chose the tracks that led off through easier terrain, since the second suspect had run off into a swamp.  Polk and his officers followed the suspect's tracks for 3.5 miles to where he had walked up on a paved road.  It was now 3 a.m. and Polk suspected the man was hiding next to a nearby bridge.  "We tried an old game warden trick and drove across the bridge at 65 mph.  he jumped right out and waved us down," he said.  "He thought we'd be going slow if we were out looking for him, and took a chance that the quickly moving vehicle was a motorist."

 

Standing Up to the Court Tests

 

Polk enjoys testifying in court, much to the chagrin of defense attorneys who think his testimony is based more on fantasy then fact.  For U.S. Assistant Attorney Alan Sprowls, who prosecuted this case, there was never any doubt about the veracity of Polk's testimony, despite the case being his first that extensively relied on mantracking.

Defense attorneys in the case did not share Sprowl's confidence in Polk's testimony during the trial.  One of them cornered him in the courthouse hallway during a break and asked him if he was really going to put Polk on the stand, to which Sprowls calmly replied yes.  "We'll call him Jack the tracker," the attorney said sarcastically.  As it turned out, the defense attorney was overly confident and attempted to discredit Polk's testimony.  "With off-the-cut remarks, Polk ended up slamming them on cross examination," Sprowls said  "Polk's ability to articulate his tracking system to the jury so they had confidence in his skill and what he testified to was extremely important."

Polk tries to put his testimony in terms the jury can relate to.  In this case, one of the major issues was how the officers were able to track the suspects across matted leaves, following fresh sand residue left from their boots.  He likened it to dipping a wet finger in a sugar bowl and having the sugar stick to it.  The jury was convinced.

 

Top Challenges

Looking back over his career with the commission, some of Polk's greatest challenges have come from catching poachers utilizing illegal steel (leg-hold) traps.   "Some of the best woodsmen I've ever known and dealt with were steel trappers," he said.  "A trapper is very sharp.  He is dependent on reading tracks just as we are.  He's looking at everything, and if you make a mistake, you're not going to catch him.  I try to teach officers to hide their tracks, because that dude is looking just as close as they are, in fact, even closer."

Polk recalls one steel-trap case made in a cabbage palm hammock near the coast of Wakulla County, Fla., some years ago.  He and another officer were in the process of following a suspect's trap line to determine how many traps he had and where he had placed them.  When the officer approached a site where palmetto fans were laid out, Polk stopped him and prodded the palms with a stick, uncovering a huge bear trap.  According to Polk, bear traps are so powerful that two, 200-pound men can stand on the springs without mashing them down.  Tracking skills saved the officer from serious injury.

Early the next morning, Polk and the officer slipped into the woods and waited.  They caught the trapper shortly after daybreak, just as he was checking his trap line.  The bear trap and 134 steel traps he had been running for raccoons were seized.

Inherent dangers lurk in every law enforcement job.  Polk feels his has become more perilous with the mi of narcotics and poaching.  "We have run into booby traps; we found toe poppers set up with a spring to set off a shotgun shell and we have found set guns.

"When we get out to follow sign, we have no idea of what kind of violation we're going to find.  We get our and follow it.  We're going to make some kind of case," he said.

To track is to hunt, the urge is as old as man itself.  It conjures up images of prehistoric men plodding through ancient marshes, steadily trailing footprints left by giant beasts.  This skill, so important to the survival of early man, has mostly faded away into the whirlwind of modern civilization.  However, it is refreshing to know that for men like Jack Polk, it is a skill that is real and necessary.  One that will never be lost, so long as there are missing people to find and criminals to catch.

Lt. Bob Lee is a veteran officer with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.  This is his first piece for POLICE.


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