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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

Life and Death Decision

In those instances where a suspect's exact location is in question and patrol officers elect to search dark environs, illumination may prove to be the greatest equalizer.

Santos has long been an avid proponent of tactical illumination, but he offers a caveat to officers as to their choice of lights, citing unanticipated dangers he and his training crew encountered in dealing with A-frame pitched roof attics. "They can create shadows-shadows which can conceal the bad guy's locations," Santos says. "And the shadow problem can be amplified when you're using strobe lights."

Santos recommends deploying very high-density directed light that will offer as diverse and spread out a pattern as possible and supplementing this illumination with other shielding tools such as portable ballistic shields and smoke.

"I've also seen some creative uses of chem lights," says Santos. "Face it: The more tools that you have at your disposal-tools like infrared, heat sensors, remote cameras-the more you can start shifting the odds to your favor. Because make no mistake about it. If there's someone up there, the odds are stacked up pretty high against you."

Because of what he has witnessed in training sessions, Santos figures that, at best, an officer has a 50-50 chance of guessing where the suspect might be in an attic. And given that every one of his students' attic entries resulted in officers taking hits-irrespective of whether or not the officers guessed correctly-Santos wonders who'd want to try and guess when it's real bullets instead of simulated rounds.

Fatal Funnels

The decision to enter a location is a complicated one. Having the wrong person make the entry can make it more so.

"Many people have phobias of crawlspaces and attics, and police officers are no exception," notes Santos. "We've encountered it in our training. You add the additional stress taken on by that officer as a result of a phobia, and you've really upped the ante for making an entry into an attic space. When even SWAT guys have involuntarily stood straight up and exposed themselves to gunfire after a mouse has run over their hand, you have to wonder how less tactically trained personnel might react."

Unfortunately, it is usually a less tactically trained officer doing the leg work on such searches.

A vast majority of the time, these searches are conducted without incident. Either the suspect isn't there, or he is discovered and placed under arrest. But often searches find officers confronting armed suspects hidden in attics, basements, and even closets.

Last year in the aftermath of killing two Oakland officers incident to a traffic stop, the shooter was able to ambush and kill still two more officers from a closet where he'd barricaded himself. Earlier this year, a Rockdale County, Ga., deputy became the first officer with his agency to die in the line of duty while searching for a suspect. Officers had cleared the bedroom and were just opening a closet door when the suspect opened fire from the darkness. Struck below his ballistic resistant vest, Dep. Brian Mahaffey was mortally wounded. The suspect was shot and killed.

"One of the things that we see is that when people go to open the closet, they stand right in front of it," observes Alwes. "They don't treat it with the same type of respect that they normally might for the front door. They're backlighting themselves and placing themselves smack in the center of the fatal funnel."

If officers are going to open closet doors, Alwes recommends that one stand to the side and open the door while another officer gets a view from a deeper part of the room.

Should officers elect to make an entry on an enclosure, they may opt for diversions, exploiting secondary entry portals to distract the suspect with flash-bangs or other devices.

If there is more than one ceiling access, one may be exploited as a diversionary device, committing an unseen suspect's attention toward it while entry is actually achieved via another entrance.

"It comes back to the three Ts: time, tactics, and troops," Alwes asserts. "Sometimes in our haste to catch the bad guy, we fail to honor that old axiom. If you really have him contained up there, what really is the motivation to having an officer stick his head through that opening? There's no hostage situation. He's not in a position to create more havoc. What's the motivation to go through there?"

Santos emphasizes that those agencies that don't have access to tactical teams really need to look hard at that question. Those that do have teams face an even tougher question: Why don't they allow the team to use their training and techniques during such incidents.

"There's always the option of bringing the ceiling down from under him. It just depends on the level you're willing to go to get him. You can bring the ceiling down rafter by rafter. It's very easy to take the drywall down. We've done it twice in houses that were ready to be destroyed. Tac teams have all the equipment. All of a sudden it gets really uncomfortable up there when you start pulling insulation out," Santos says.

Is It Worth It?

Alwes says there are two questions he has always asked himself before committing himself or his personnel to searches of enclosed venues: First, can I win? Second, is it worth it?

James Stalnaker, a retired captain from the San Bernardino (Calif.) Sheriff's Office and author of the excellent book "Building Search: Tactics for the Patrol Officer," hopes that cops consider Alwes' two-pronged question before taking action. For to Stalnaker's mind, if there is a greater danger than a lack of training, it is a lack of discipline in patrol officers.

"I'm talking about cops who are unable to control their adrenaline and their emotion," Stalnaker explains. "There's always a human factor that gets an officer hurt or killed."

The cop Stalnaker fears most for is the one who may have had a suspect under control that got away from him. In trying to make some compensatory overture, the embarrassed officer may find himself getting in over his head. "The officer feels that he's been made to look bad in the eyes of his fellow officers," Stalnaker says, "and pride goes before the fall, as they say."

Despite mankind's historical fear of the darkness, there have always been those suspects who have exploited it to their advantage. But by anticipating their threats before they initiate them, we can help to ensure that their darkest hour doesn't become ours.

Related Articles:

Duty Dangers: Ambush!

Duty Dangers: Traffic Stops

Duty Dangers: Booby Traps

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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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