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Cover Story

Concealed Suspects: Into the Hearts of Darkness

Attics, basements, closets, and crawlspaces all present great hazards to officers searching for concealed suspects.

November 18, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

For some of us fear of the dark is culturally indoctrinated. For others, it's an instinctual echo; the dark was threatening to our ancestors in ways that humans who live their nights under electric lights can barely understand.

Today, horror movie directors use our instinctual fear of the dark, toying with audiences before drawing back that curtain of night and revealing the monster so that the fans of such fare can go home having survived a vicarious thrill.

But when cops must face the unknown hazards concealed by the dark, we don't have the luxury of waiting for the credits to roll and the theater lights to come on. What we face in the dark is real and vicious. And the average citizen would be hard-pressed to imagine the fear we experience while poking our heads through a dark attic access or down a gloomy basement stairwell in hopes of divining a suspect's whereabouts.

For an officer, fear of the dark is both reasonable and prudent. Only God knows how many cops have peered into that darkness to find it split by an amber flash.

The High Ground

Cops accept the prospect of working in oftentimes dangerous environs, and we train to minimize the risks associated with them. We familiarize ourselves with a variety of weaponry and tactics, practice both live fire and simulation round training, and are exposed to a variety of role playing scenarios. But if there is one area of tactical concern where most cops have perhaps been shortchanged, it is dealing with those dark places where suspects often hide.

Attics are particularly problematic. Not only do they give suspects the high ground and allow them to be anywhere within a 360-degree radius of a portal, but they often find searching officers backlit and precariously situated atop ladders.

Some officers don't get that far.

When officers of the Milwaukee Police Department's Tactical Enforcement Unit descended upon the house of a cop-hating recluse, they anticipated the possibility of being fired upon by the suspect. In a bid to get a bearing on the suspect, they inserted a mirror into the loft and saw that the man was in the process of lighting candles. Despite their attempt to back away, the man was able to douse the officers with a burning fluid. Three officers suffered first- and second-degree burns-two of them to their faces.

Those officers that succeed in gaining entry into attics run the risk of engaging suspects in close, confined quarters. For some, such confrontations have led to bodies crashing through ceilings and resulted in injuries to both the officers and the suspects.

San Bernardino (Calif.) Deputy Sheriff Luke Gayton's first attic entry was a memorable one. Gayton was one of several deputies who narrowed down a search for a domestic violence suspect to the man's attic. A neighbor had advised deputies that he thought the man may be armed, but wasn't sure as he'd never actually seen a firearm: Valuable information to have, but not enough to rise to the level of a SWAT call-out. Requests to a local agency for a K-9 failed to secure one, and in the belief that he'd be able to obtain the quickest overview of the attic, the 6-foot, four-inch Gayton was selected to enter the attic first.

Gayton borrowed a tactical light from another officer, attached it to his gun, and entered the attic. The plan was that he'd search the east side of the attic while his partner would follow immediately thereafter and search the west side.

Gayton noticed footprints in the insulation and followed them. Twelve feet from the attic access, he found a pair of feet protruding from where the suspect had buried himself in the insulation. The suspect's refusal to obey Gayton's demands to show his hands resulted in Gayton deploying his TASER. But the TASER failed to establish contact, which gave the suspect the chance to sit up and point a gun at Gayton.

Yelling, "Gun!" Gayton fired twice at the suspect with his own sidearm. But while stepping backward, the deputy fell and struck his head on a roof joist.

When he saw Gayton fall, his partner thought that the suspect had shot Gayton and returned fire toward the suspect, who again pointed the gun at Gayton. Gayton then shot five more rounds, mortally wounding the suspect.

Gayton's experience illustrates many of the hazards of confronting a suspect in an attic. He dealt with confined spaces, architectural obstacles, ungainly footing, confusing acoustics, and a concealed suspect during his first attic search.

Gayton says the lessons learned that day were taken to heart by his agency. These days, San Bernardino County deputies routinely deploy mirrors into attics before entering them, and Gayton has since safely performed more than two dozen attic searches.

Agencies are also using tactical units more on attic searches. And a recent incident in Jonesboro, Ark., illustrates why that's a good idea.

Jonesboro officers were after an armed rape suspect and they thought he was in a specific residence. They obtained a search warrant for the location and made entry. The search led them to believe he was hiding in the attic. A patrol officer went up through the attic opening where he was immediately fired upon by the suspect. The round was stopped by the officer's ballistic resistant vest and he was able to return fire, incapacitating the suspect.

Many experts believe a tactical team should have been called in on this operation. After all, most tactical teams have the weaponry, shields, and sophisticated surveillance tools such as pole cameras to mitigate the hazards of such a search.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

skinni99 @ 12/22/2010 12:25 PM

Very good article. To the readers, I urge you to take advantage of your tactical teams and their tools. Sometimes they have access to equipment that makes a potentially deadly situation for the officer, not so deadly. If you attempt to use them, but you end up having to do things the ol' fashion way, can articulate better why you had to shoot the suspect during contact.

Stay sharp and be safe!

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