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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

Going Downstairs

Basements may provide insight to the men who exploit them. Such environments often appeal to those who wish to make their last stand because they have no means of escape.

The Beslan terrorists exploited the school basement during their assault on that institution. A basement was where cop killer Edward Nathaniel Bell barricaded himself after killing Westchester, Va., police Sgt. Ricky Timbrook. It was also a basement that afforded St. Louis County, Mo., Sgt. Richard Eric Weinhold's killer the vantage point by which to ambush the sergeant. In California, Joe Teitgen took refuge in a basement before suddenly darting out its door and shooting Vallejo, Calif., Officer Jeff Azuar in the head, killing him.

Don Alwes of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) says that basements pose unique threats to police officers searching for concealed suspects.

"Probably one of the more dangerous situations is going down a stairway into a basement where the back side of the steps are not closed," Alwes explains. "If the bad guy is behind the stairs looking through and watching you coming down the steps, he's got a huge lead on you. The only safe way to do that is either crawling down on your belly-which isn't very practical-or to use a mirror to try to see behind the steps, or put eyes in that basement some other way. We don't always think about going down the stairs, particularly in a residence, as being a really dangerous situation."

Alwes cites the recent death of a Kentucky police officer who followed a domestic violence suspect down a basement stairwell. Seeing the officer from such a vantage point, the suspect was able to ambush the officer with an SKS rifle, killing him.

"The deputy got in over his head before he realized he'd been caught in that funnel, and he didn't survive it," Alwes says.

Recon and Tactics

When it comes to searching for suspects in dark and shadowy hiding places, mitigating an officer's chances of getting shot starts with getting the lay of the land. Officers want to determine if there is more than one means of entering or exiting the enclosure and what portals may give suspects an eye-line on officers. In dealing with apartments and condos, they need to know if attics or crawlspaces share common accesses. Many times, this knowledge is acquired only incident to a search of the target location. However, nearby buildings with similar floorplans may be used for recon as well.

Visually canvassing the location and recognizing red flags is imperative. Have cobwebs been disturbed around attic portals, or dust pooled on the floor directly below them? Has the trap door been haphazardly replaced or weighed down? Are doors, covers, and other barriers cracked open or bored in such a manner as to allow a suspect to see out, but to preclude an officer's ability to see in? Has the wire mesh covering a crawlspace access been removed or the ground near it been disturbed?

Answers in the affirmative may dictate a request for a tactical unit to handle the situation, particularly if the suspect is known or believed to be armed; more so if the suspect's flight was so effectively contained as to leave little doubt that he is in your containment.

An officer who fails to recognize the significance of attics, basements, and crawl spaces may be setting himself up for an ambush. Some will discount the confines as too constricting to accommodate a suspect. More often, they simply fail to look up and notice them.

During training exercises, former Fort Shawnee, Ohio, police chief Rick Rohrbaugh made a habit of dropping empty casings behind those officers who'd strolled beneath ceiling accesses and air conditioning units without looking up.

"Dropping an empty casing behind the students actually scared them worse than shooting a blank," recalls Rohrbaugh. "But by the time patrol tactics classes concluded, we had graduated bobble heads who'd learned to look up, down, and all around."

Looking up and recognizing a potential problem is a good start, notes NTOA's Alwes. Still, he cautions that officers should exploit high-tech alternatives before committing themselves to needless courses of action.

"You have thermal devices that can locate sources of body heat; others that can pick up minute sounds. Throw robots and pole cameras have also determined whether or not a suspect was in a room," Alwes says. "They're even developing mechanical sniffing devices that will eclipse their canine counterparts in determining whether or not there's human life in an enclosed area."

Alwes adds that even in the absence of such high-tech hardware, cops should try verbal commands before making like Punxsutawney Phil, the famous Pennsylvania groundhog, and sticking their heads up through a hole.

"Sometimes simply yelling, 'Come on out, we know you're in there,' will get them out-particularly if you're threatening to put a dog in there with them," Alwes advises.

And as more than one cop has discovered, that dog need not necessarily be present.

"My partner and I responded to a Burglary in progress at 4 o'clock in the morning," recalls retired NYPD officer Jim McDevitt. "We were faced with a pitch-black basement where we were pretty sure the suspect was hiding. At the time, only the bomb squad had a K-9 unit, but we suspected that our suspect wouldn't know that. So, my partner began calling down into the basement, 'Come on out or I'm sending the K-9 unit in,' while I started doing my best dog barking imitation. We got the suspect to come out with his hands up."

In those instances where "olly-olly oxen free" fails to garner the desired results, many law enforcement agencies deem non-compliance with verbal commands as the threshold for pepper spray deployment. Marinating a ceiling with PepperBall rounds or saturating an enclosure with OC spray can make things awfully uncomfortable for the people inside them.

Ed Santos, owner and founder of Center Target Sports and an expert in low-light tactics, suggests that police agencies consider exploiting the acoustics of such closed environs.

"The loud music and noise exploited by psy-ops units in the military can also work for us, as well. It can be exploited on multiple levels-working on the suspect psychologically and tearing at his eardrums, while simultaneously masking our breaching attempts and other efforts, as well."

One can only wonder how long some good ol' boy could hole up in a closet with Ghostface Killah's latest rap opus blaring at 170 decibels, courtesy of six 15-inch woofers and a couple of amplifiers propped up against the door.

Tags: Searching for Suspects, Search and Seizure, How-To Guides, Duty Dangers


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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