Searching suspects is always dangerous. A thorough search technique is essential to keeping yourself and other officers safe.
Some of you reading this article may immediately shut down, thinking, "I'm a veteran cop. I know everything to know about searching suspects." But I'm here to tell you that attitude can get you killed. Patting down a suspect is serious business and you can never be reminded enough of the hazards of doing it poorly.
One of the major causes of line-of-duty deaths among American law enforcement officers is the presence of undiscovered weapons on suspects. Here are just a few examples of tragedies that have resulted from poor searches:
Two state troopers were murdered by a drunk driving suspect after they removed his handcuffs to administer a breath test. The officers had missed a handgun concealed on the man's person.
A patrolman was killed by a pistol shot fired from the back seat of his patrol car by a prisoner he had searched inadequately before transporting.
An officer was slain in a jail cell while preparing a prisoner for transport to another holding facility. From his clothing the inmate produced a handgun that had apparently been missed by multiple searches.
In an era in which virtually every peace officer has been exposed to the vital principles of officer safety, no member of our ranks should die at the hands of someone who should have been safely in custody. Yet, as the preceding examples reveal, it does happen. And most of the time, the means of the officer's death was present because of an inadequate search of the person in his custody.
Regardless of the type of search you are carrying out, several cardinal rules apply.
First, whenever possible the search of a person should be carried out under the watchful eye of a cover officer. It is this officer's responsibility to come quickly to your aid if resistance develops. In addition, the second officer provides psychological deterrence and may prevent trouble from developing.
Second, officers normally should follow the principle of "handcuff first, search second" when taking an individual into custody. Although special circumstances call for special responses, the fact remains that an individual who is properly secured by handcuffs is less likely to hurt the searching officer. But remember, handcuffs are temporary and fallible restraints that can be (and have been) defeated, and great care must be exercised around handcuffed people.
Third, searches of people, even so-called "pat down" searches, should only be executed by an officer wearing protective gloves. There are a number of good patrol gloves on the market that feature material to shield against lacerations and pricks by blades and needles and protection against body fluids. The key is to choose gloves that offer some degree of protection yet are not so thick and bulky so as to make it impossible to feel weapons and other items through them.
Fourth, before beginning any search, ask the subject if he has anything on him that could get him into trouble. He should be asked specifically if he has needles or blades. One veteran street cop I know uses the same speech to accompany every search: "I need to know if you have anything on you that might hurt me. If I get hurt by something you said wasn't there, we're both going to be sorry." That's all he says. The subject is left to decide for himself the officer's meaning. Of course some people will lie and only a truly foolish officer would throw his searching caution to the wind after being assured by a street mope that he is "clean."
Fifth, it is worth remembering that not everything that looks innocent truly is. Survivalist magazines and catalogs are full of ads for cutting instruments and firearms disguised as pagers, ballpoint pens, belt buckles, credit cards, and other benign items. (For more on these disguised weapons, see "Hidden Threats," Police, August 2002.)
The best way to avoid becoming a victim of such a weapon is to let your imagination run wild when it comes to examining the items carried by the subject you are searching. For example, all neck chains may have a stabbing or slicing device at the end of them. All belts may conceal a stabbing instrument or handcuff key. Check them carefully.
Finally, every law enforcement officer should realize that there is no magic number of times that a person should be searched. An individual who is taken into custody should be searched immediately upon his physical arrest, searched again before being placed into a vehicle for transport, and searched yet again before being taken out of handcuffs for booking and incarceration purposes.
Generally speaking, each search should be more detailed than the last. But you must rely on your own common sense and safety judgment to tell you if still more detailed searches are needed.
The terms "frisk" and "pat down" are not particularly accurate in describing the technique of searching a suspect, as they tend to give the impression that the search is perfunctory. Don't ever take a search so lightly.
To perform a good pat-down search, let the subject to be searched know what you expect of him. Announce your intent to search in clear terms. What's said will vary from one situation to the next, but many officers simply state in a firm but courteous fashion, something like, "I just need to check you for weapons here. Turn around and face away from me. Spread your legs and interlace your fingers atop your head for me, please.
Different subject control systems put different "flourishes" on what happens next. In one often-used technique, the officer approaches the subject from the rear to within touching distance and grasps the person's interlaced fingers with his weak hand. The subject is then arched and pulled backward somewhat so that if resistance occurs the individual can be pulled quickly to the ground while the officer backs off to produce whatever force option appears indicated by the threat level.
The idea is to pull the subject back enough so as to have him off-balance. While the subject's fingers are clasped with your weak hand, reach around with your strong hand from the subject's rear and search that side of his body. Clothing is patted and gently squeezed for anything that appears out of place. (Hopefully, you have already visually scanned the party for any out-of-place bulges or visible weapons, such as a knife in a scabbard or a holstered handgun.)
Complete the search down the entire side of the subject's body, working from his head to feet. When the search of that side is complete, switch hands without losing control of the subject. You should now be using your strong hand to clasp the subject's interlaced fingers while your weak hand checks the other half of the subject's clothing and person, front and rear. Any weapon or other dangerous item encountered should be removed and secured in your belt. The search then continues for additional threats.