Shortly before 6 a.m., a 39-year old patrolman was shot fatally during a burglary at a clothing store. With backup officers en route but not yet on the scene, the officer entered the structure alone, began a search, and got into a struggle with a male adult. The subject disarmed the officer and shot him with his own 38-caliber service weapon. The bullet passed through a gap on the side of the officer's vest and pierced his heart.
Early in the afternoon on the same day, sheriff's deputies were searching a home for two jail escapees. A deputy opened the door to a bedroom and was hit in the head and below his body armor with several revolver rounds. He died of his injuries.
Thousands of times a day in this country peace officers search homes, businesses, schools, and other structures for hidden offenders. Structure searches can turn into a high-risk assignment for the officers performing them. They are made all the more dangerous by the presence of one or more searching errors that can lead to unnecessary bloodshed.
But none of these "fatal errors" has to happen. There are a number of effective steps that you can take to carry out this vital task safely. The first is to find out what you're dealing with.
Assembling as much information as possible before starting your search will make your efforts safer and more effective. Although you don't want to be paralyzed into inaction because you don't have every single question answered, you should attempt to answer the following, key queries:
What is the layout of the structure to be searched?
What do you know about the offender(s)?
What crimes are known or suspected?
Are there believed to be weapons involved? (A safe assumption is that deadly weapons are always a potential danger.)
What was the apparent point of entry?
Who else may be inside?
What dangers may lurk outside the structure?
What don't you know about the situation that could pose a danger?
Once you've gathered as much information as possible about the task before you, make sure you have enough help to do the job right.
Structure searches are multiple officer jobs. Never start one alone. You should have a search partner with you at all times, with one or more officers remaining outside to watch for offenders who may dash from the building.
The size and configuration of the structure to be searched will help dictate how much help you'll need. Two officers inside and two outside (at diagonally opposite corners of the structure) may be adequate for the search of a residence. On the other hand, multiple two-officer search teams inside and half a dozen officers on watch outside may be necessary for the proper search of a large, irregularly configured building.
Wait for adequate backup to arrive before beginning an interior search. Remain outside and behind cover until help arrives, even if doing so gives an offender an opportunity to flee. If you're unable to assemble enough help to adequately cover both the inside and outside, abandon the exterior and take your assistance inside. It is better to allow a flushed offender to escape than to endanger yourself by relying on insufficient searching help.
Make a Safe Approach and Entry
Don't wait until you're inside a structure to start looking for danger. Officers have been murdered by lookouts, getaway drivers, and burglars' backups that were positioned outside buildings. As you approach the scene, look for anything suspicious, such as vehicles parked where they shouldn't be. Use good cover tactics and stay alert for sudden threats.
Once you and your search partner are ready to make entry, do so quickly. Never linger in a doorway or other opening. If possible, utilize an entry point other than the one apparently used by the offender. He may be waiting just inside.
Announcing your presence as "the police" is a decision to be made on a case-by-case basis. If you feel there is a good chance innocents are inside, such as residents or a cleaning crew, announcing yourself and then waiting a minute or two or before entering is probably a good idea. If you're fairly certain only bad guys are inside and they're likely already aware of your presence, an announcement may only endanger you and your partners. (But in the case of a K-9 deployment, an announcement should always precede the release of the dog.)
If you are entering via an inward-opening door, throw it open forcefully to reveal anyone concealed behind it. You and your partner should move rapidly through the opening, wrapping yourselves around the doorframe to minimize exposure. (Decide in advance who will go first to prevent a collision in the doorway.) Once you are inside, keep your back against the wall and scan visually for immediate threats with your weapon in hand. Move quickly to solid cover and start your search from there.
Coordinate with Partners
Stay in close touch by radio with all of the officers on the scene of a structure search. Remain in constant communication with your dispatcher, too. He or she may be able to feed you additional information, such as reports of additional interior alarms being tripped.
Poor coordination and communication can lead to fatal surprises, including officers shot by their peers in a case of mistaken identity. To prevent such a tragedy, it's important that everyone know where everyone else is and what is to happen next.
Once you're inside a structure, hand signals may be preferable to spoken commands. Realize, too, that a chattering radio can give away your position. Maintain good sound discipline even as you listen intently for giveaway noises from your adversary. It's a good idea to remain still and simply listen from time to time.
You and your search partners should make at least a preliminary "plan of attack" before entering a structure. Once inside, one officer at a time should move from one source of cover to another while the other provides cover. Then reverse the roles. Continue the "move, search, and cover" routine until the operation is complete. This is not the place for freelance searching by anyone. Neither member of the team should leave the other's sight.