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Departments : Officer Survival

Structure Searches

When it comes to searching buildings, there’s no such thing as a “safe” house.

September 01, 2003  |  by Gerald W. Garner

Think Cover

Don't forget that cover is relative. A barrier that might stop a low-velocity handgun round isn't much help if you're under fire from a rifle-wielding attacker. You want the best cover you can access quickly. The best cover in the world won't be of much help if it is 100 yards away and you are under fire. Inside a structure, heavy furniture may be the best cover you can anticipate.

Once you find good cover, use it carefully. Keep covered what you don't want to lose. Expose as little of yourself as possible when you look from behind cover. Peek quick and low, and try to avoid looking twice from exactly the same place. "Think cover" throughout a building search. Next to your search partner, cover is your best friend.

Pay Attention to Positioning

Look for things out of the ordinary. For example, why is this sports car parked in the handicapped spot?

Everything you learned about safe positioning in your officer survival training is applicable during a structure search. Stay alert for surprises. Be conscious of the location of every member of the search team. Have an escape route in mind in case a quick retreat becomes necessary. Don't pass by unsecured doors or hallways. Pay special attention to closets, storage areas, attics, basements, and crawl spaces. Be prepared to search anywhere a human body-including a small and flexible one-might be concealed.

With a multiple-story structure, consider starting at the top and working down floor by floor to permit an offender to be flushed out rather than trapped in a position he must defend. You may need to post officers on each floor to prevent an offender from back-tracking via stairs or elevators into an area already cleared. On a large structure, you might use chalk or bits of tape to mark doors and areas already covered.

Do not stand directly in front of a door you are about to open. Don't move into another officer's potential line of fire or otherwise block his vision. And never put a potential threat behind you.

Avoid Complacency

Complacency and carelessness can kill you. So can making a dangerous assumption. These come in various shapes and sizes, but can include the following:

"Cornered crooks will surrender."
"All burglar alarms are false."
"If the bad guy was here, he's already left the building."
"Police search dogs are infallible."

The only safe assumption to make about a structure search is that it is a potentially dangerous undertaking. It is deserving of your full attention and your best survival skills.

Apathy can be one of your deadliest enemies during a structure search. Don't allow it to creep into your subconscious or dictate your actions. Stay sharp. Be on the lookout for the next threat to appear without warning. If you sniff out one offender, carefully secure and search him. Then, remove him under guard and resume your search for the next one, even if you believe he was alone. Do not lower your level of alertness until you are absolutely certain that the search is over and the danger has passed. If you feel you may have missed a hidden offender, repeat the search as many times as necessary until you feel comfortable that the place really is clean.

Take Your Time

Hurrying a structure search can have fatal consequences. You have not saved time if you or another officer has to return and do it again because the first effort was sloppy or incomplete. A safe structure search demands your full attention as a street-savvy professional, and that means taking the time to do it right.

You don't want a hidden offender to later escape because you rushed past his hiding place. And you certainly do not want to give him the opportunity to attack you or your search partner because you got careless in an effort to save time. That next call can wait until you finish doing the job right.

Critique Performance

When the operation is over and the area secured, discuss with your search partners what went well, what was learned, and what might have been done better.

Then, critique your own handling of the challenge. What would you like to do differently next time? You may even be able to learn things from a captured offender. Where was he hiding? Did he hear or see the searchers? When? Were they vulnerable to him?

Take all of the information you gather into account for planning your next search. Practice what you have learned. It just may help to save your life the next time out.

Stay safe by always looking out for the next threat, communicating with your search partners, and critiquing yourself honestly when the search is done so as to get better (and safer) for the next one.

Gerald W. Garner, a member of the POLICE Advisory Board, is a 34-year veteran of law enforcement. He has authored six books on law enforcement topics.

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