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Departments : Officer Survival

Search Patterns

Taking a haphazard approach to patting down a subject is a sure recipe for disaster.

May 01, 2003  |  by Gerald W. Garner

Full Custody Search

Always handcuff a subject before beginning a search. Also keep him or her off-balance so you maintain control.

Anyone taken into custody for any reason must be searched. That's rule number one of the arrest process.

Many of the precautions and techniques of the "pat down" search apply here, too. But the position of disadvantage in which the subject is placed may vary, as some felony or high-risk arrest tactics call for the individual to be proned out or directed to kneel, at least initially.

Regardless of the subject's position, work from the subject's rear under the surveillance of a cover officer. Once again, be careful to keep your own balance by not reaching too far around the subject. But keep the subject off-balance throughout the process. And always remain alert for a sneak attack from even the most "compliant" individual.

Every full custody search is conducted systematically. The search targets are weapons, evidence, and contraband. Begin the search with the subject's headgear and hair and progress downward to his or her feet. The inside and outside of a hat or cap should be checked, as should the subject's hair. Remove jackets and other overgarments (coats, sweaters, vests, etc.) and check all shirt collars. A thorough search proceeds inward from the outer garments to those closest to the skin.

Pay very careful attention to chains or cords around the subject's neck. Always remove them and check for any attachments such as razor blades.

While keeping an eye on the individual for obvious irregularities, such as bulges under clothing, run your hands along the outside of his or her clothes. Empty the  pockets. Pat folds in the clothing and squeeze them gently to probe for hidden items.

Now continue down the subject's front, sides, and back. Pay special attention to the armpits, small of the back, and groin area. Experience has demonstrated that the groin is often one of a veteran criminal's favorite hiding places for weapons or contraband. He assumes that many officers will be reluctant to search closely in the crotch of another man's pants.

Inventory and bag the items recovered during the search and place them out of the subject's reach. Separate the subject from all pocketknives, pens, lighters, belts, ties, keys, medications, and footwear. Be sure to check shoes and boots for hidden compartments or weapons. The contents of wallets should be tallied, not only to protect the officer from allegations of theft but also to reveal hidden razor blades, needles, and bindles of drugs.

And don't ever rush through the search process. It simply will take as long as it takes to do the job right. Your life could depend on it.

Every officer who assumes custody of a prisoner is wise to search him anew, no matter how many times he may have been searched before and in spite of another officer's pronouncement that he is "clean." Not every officer is as careful with searching techniques as you should be.

Getting Personal

While beneath-the-clothing searches normally should be executed by an officer of the same gender as the person being searched, that does not preclude an arresting officer of the opposite gender from conducting a pat down for weapons. Remember, there is a big difference between a pat and a grope.

Likewise, the officer who has arrested a member of the opposite sex is not precluded from promptly retrieving a hidden weapon which he or she has good reason to believe is present. In addition, purses, handbags, and fanny or waist packs must be placed beyond the reach of their owner and searched in detail. Once more it is worth recalling that not everything that looks harmless really is. A careful inquiry now could save time, embarrassment, or blood, later.

Practice Makes Perfect

It is not possible for you to learn everything there is to know about searching by watching a video or reading a magazine article. To be effective, your searching routine must be practiced and critiqued under the tutelage of a skilled, patient instructor.

Effective searching techniques, like many skills called upon in the law enforcement field, are at least to some extent motor skills. And motor skills tend to fade with the passage of time unless they are practiced. Hands-on training and periodic practice in the right way to do a search is a must for any officer intent on staying safe on the street.

Handling prisoners is one of the more dangerous things that you do on a regular basis. Skipping a search or doing a poor search can result in tragedy. But by searching carefully and systematically the immediate surroundings, clothing, and persons of those you arrest or detain, you can dramatically reduce the likelihood of you or a fellow officer being killed or seriously injured while on duty. All it takes is the application of sound judgment, attention to detail, and the technical skill required to look carefully for trouble. In a profession where oftentimes routine can be dangerous, getting into a very systematic and thorough routine when it comes to searching can mean all the difference in the world.

Strip Searches

You must be careful to follow your jurisdiction's laws and your agency's regulations before having a prisoner remove all of his or her clothing for a search for weapons or contraband.

Before any search can commence, you must be able to clearly delineate why you feel the subject may be concealing weapons or contraband under his or her clothing or within his or her body. You have to have more than a "hunch" that this is the case.

The search must be conducted in a private place out of view of others or camera surveillance. And it should be carried out by two officers of the same gender as the subject being searched. If an object is seen or suspected within a body cavity (with the exception of the subject's mouth), it is to be recovered only by a medical professional or the subject.

Finally, be sure to document your reasons for the search and keep records of what you find.

Prisoner Handling Checklist

  • Follow all of the basic officer survival guidelines that you observe for any kind of contact with a potentially dangerous individual.
  • Never be lured into a false sense of security by an apparently docile, cooperative prisoner.
  • Follow careful weapon retention practice any time you are in the presence of a prisoner-yours or another officer's.
  • Keep your subject at a physical disadvantage throughout the handling process.
  • Follow correct handcuffing practices with your subject.
  • Always keep looking for the next threat, whether it comes in the form of an undiscovered weapon or an associate of your subject showing up to interfere.
  • Do not allow family, friends, or associates of your prisoner to come into physical contact with him once he is in custody.
  • Never forget that experienced criminals can be very innovative in finding ways to hide weapons.
  • Remove from your prisoner's custody anything with which he might hurt himself or someone else.
  • Always search the prisoner area of your police vehicle both before and after a transport.
  • Learn from your every experience with a prisoner to get better and safer for the next one. Never stop learning.

Gerald W. Garner is a long-time member of the POLICE Advisory Board  and a division chief with the Lakewood (Colo.) Police Department. The 33-year veteran holds a master's degree in administration of justice and writes often on officer safety topics. His six books include two on officer survival.

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