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Departments : The Winning Edge

Know Their Flight Plans

To catch criminals who are trying to escape, you have to think like them.

July 01, 2006  |  by Jack H. Schonely

When it comes to apprehending fleeing suspects, understanding the tactics being used by those suspects is as important as understanding the tactics practiced by law enforcement. The criminal element has learned how law enforcement operates and criminals have adjusted their tactics.

Many suspects running from officers are captured every day; however, a greater number get away. All of these suspects can immediately share their stories with fellow criminals either in a jail setting, if they were caught, or at home with friends if they escaped capture. These stories of success and failure certainly travel quickly through the criminal population.

You can also bet that criminals watch shows like “Cops,” “LAPD: Life on the Beat,” and numerous documentaries on specialized police units. All of these shows were designed to educate and entertain the law-abiding public on what it’s really like to be a cop in the United States, but criminals also watch these shows to educate themselves on police tactics.

The result is that when an “educated” criminal sees a patrol car in the rearview mirror, he has tactics in mind to avoid capture and is ready to put those tactics in motion if confronted.

Law enforcement must meet the challenge of “educated criminals” head on by continuing to modernize equipment and developing new tactics. In other words, the best way to counter the bad guys’ attempts to foil our tactics is to study their tactics and share what we learn with our fellow officers.

When it comes to discussing suspect tactics nothing is written in stone. Every suspect and every chase is unique, but trends do emerge.

None of the suspect tactics about to be discussed is guaranteed to occur when an officer chases his or her next suspect, but they have been used numerous times in the past by suspects all over America.

During foot pursuits 20 years ago, it was very common for suspects to run a short distance and grab the first good hiding place. Search teams quickly located many of these suspects hiding inside sheds, under houses, and behind bushes. Today this still occurs on occasion, but it has become the exception to the rule. More and more suspects are being located a great distance from where they were last observed by officers and many are hiding in close proximity to an officer assisting with a containment.

Running Until Confronted
This trend clearly indicates that most suspects are no longer content to grab the first hiding spot and wait for K-9 or SWAT to come and get them. They are running as fast and as far as possible until they are forced to grab a hiding spot. They are running until confronted by law enforcement.

In this case, “confronted” does not necessarily mean an officer with gun drawn standing in front of the suspect. The confrontation is the perception in the mind of the suspect that the police are about to catch him. It may be the sound of approaching police sirens, or the reflection of emergency lights on a building, or a police helicopter arriving overhead, or a patrol car screeching to a stop at the corner that causes the suspect to now find a place to hide.

More and more suspects are found hiding at the far edge of even large containments, many times within feet of a patrol car. Some of these suspects have stated that the only reason they stopped running was the sight of the patrol car at the corner. The officers in their patrol cars never observed the suspects, but the officers’ mere presence deterred a suspect from crossing a street and running out of the containment area.

Finding suspects hiding in the last bush of the last yard of the last block of a containment area is a common occurrence. This suspect tactic alone should keep officers working a perimeter on their toes at all times. The suspect could be hiding in close proximity to the location of an officer and may be watching the officer’s every move.

The Path of Least Resistance

Studies have been completed in an attempt to place a probability on what direction a suspect who is fleeing the police will turn. These studies are interesting and I am sure they have some scientific merit, but only in a world without obstacles.

In the real world of fences, walls, gates, dogs, razor wire, trees, brush, vehicles, and any other obstacle you can think of, suspects most often take the path of least resistance.

This path has the fewest and easiest obstacles to deal with while running from the police.

Consider a suspect who is running from officers. She runs down a driveway into the backyard of an urban residential neighborhood. She observes a five-foot fence with a dog behind it to the right, a seven-foot chain link fence with razor wire straight ahead, and a three-foot fence to the left. Even at a sprint, her choice is simple: Go left over the easiest obstacle.

Do some suspects still go straight into the razor wire or right over the fence with the dog? Absolutely. But very few will do that. Most suspects who choose to take a more difficult route have a particular location they are attempting to get to. Understanding this tactic can make a difference in capturing a suspect.

Running Through the Block
Suspects have learned that if they move quickly through a block, cross the street, and enter the next block it is very challenging for officers to stay a step ahead. Even agencies that are very good at setting up quick containments will be challenged by the suspect who does this.

A suspect with average speed and agility can run through the width of a block in approximately 20 seconds. That is with a couple of fences. Twenty seconds is not a long time to get an officer to block the path of the suspect. Take away the fences and you can cut five to 10 seconds off that time.

It is very important for responding units to think of this tactic when deciding exactly where to respond to contain the suspect. Think about how long it took to get to the scene and what kinds of obstacles there are inside the block. A decision to contain two blocks instead of one is a good one in many cases, especially if the suspect is a serious felon.

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