It is a quiet night on graveyard shift when an officer receives a call about a possible burglary in progress at a residence. As he approaches the area, the officer turns off his headlights, turns the corner, and parks his patrol car several houses short of the location. He observes a male standing on the sidewalk who waves and identifies himself as the person who called the police.
The officer learns that this person observed two males dressed in dark clothing in his neighbor's backyard and then heard the sound of breaking glass. The neighbors are out of town on vacation. The officer's pulse quickens as he calls for an additional officer to search the location.
This is certainly not an unusual type of call, but it is one that should not be taken lightly. There are many factors to consider before stepping foot onto the property. The first has already been requested, an additional officer. Any type of search requires at least two officers working together as a team. This enhances officer safety, particularly when contact is made with a suspect.
Thorough, Patient, and Systematic
I believe that being thorough, patient, and systematic is vital for a safe and successful search. All are equally important. If only two of the three are followed, you increase the chance of missing the suspect or getting into a situation where the suspect has a decisive advantage.
Remember that an experienced suspect has a given advantage in that he or she is concealed and quite possibly able to observe your approach. Let's look at each of these traits individually.
Being thorough means that "no stone is left unturned." As you search you look at every possible hiding location no matter how unlikely it may be that the suspect is hiding there. Suspects have been located in some incredible places over the years, many times surprising the officer searching. If you find yourself saying, "he couldn't be hiding there," look there.
An example of this is a very narrow space between a building and a block wall. The space appears to contain some plywood and some trash. You look at that space and determine that the space is far too narrow for this burglar to hide in and you move on without checking it. In my judgment, this is an error, as numerous suspects have been found in very tight spaces where it was nearly impossible to get them out.
Another excellent example of often missed hiding places is the stairwell landing. Stairwells are very common and all of them have some sort of landing. As you walk past the bottom of the steps leading to a second floor, it is impossible to clear the entire landing from ground level. If the suspect were standing on the landing he would be easily observed. But what if the suspect is lying prone on the landing?
If you are conducting a thorough search you must slowly climb the stairs "cutting the pie" vertically until the stairwell landing comes into view. Many suspects have been apprehended in this hiding location, but unfortunately many have gotten away because officers did not take the extra minute to be thorough and climb the stairs.
Patience during a search will eventually pay big dividends if you give it a chance. Many officers search like it is a race and they are being timed to complete the task. These officers will miss many suspects over their careers. Hopefully they will survive to retirement.
Slowing down and being patient will allow your senses to work as you complete the search. Your eyes looking at something do not always immediately communicate that information to your brain. In many cases you need to look at an object for several seconds or even several minutes before you truly recognize what you are looking at.
My favorite example of this is the suspect hiding in a closet. Nearly every cop in the country has at some time found a suspect hiding in a closet. Most of those suspects were not standing upright and out in the open inside the closet. Most were behind clothing hanging on hangers, up on a shelf, or hiding under a pile of dirty laundry. In those cases you are not going to observe the entire suspect. What you are going to see is a foot, or an elbow, or a shoulder that is exposed.
If you are the officer that takes a quick look inside of the closet and moves on, you are not going to locate most of the suspects we are discussing. You need to stop and really look at every part of the closet and allow your eyes and brain to absorb what you are really seeing. That foot exposed under the laundry does not jump out at you immediately; it takes a few seconds to register. Sure, experience may lessen the time it takes to register, but the human brain can only work so fast and we must give it a chance to catch up with what we are looking at.
Being systematic means that you have a plan and a method for the search you are about to engage in. That plan should be briefed to all officers involved in the search and it will be important that you do not deviate from the plan. In my opinion, part of that plan must cover a clear starting point as well as a clear ending point for the search. Everything in between those points must then be thoroughly searched. Nothing should be skipped over.
For example, officers determine that they are going to search four residential properties looking for a suspect. After completing a very thorough search of the first two properties, they find that the third property has a very angry dog in the rear yard. It is three o'clock in the morning and you can clear most of the yard by looking over the fence. It would be easy to skip this yard and not wake up the owner in the middle of the night. After all, we can see most of the yard. Don't do it.
Knock on that door, have the owner take the dog inside, and search that yard. Criminals have been quoted as saying, "cops don't search yards with a dog." And that is why they hide there. Fortunately, many cops do search those yards and they locate lots of suspects. Some of those suspects are actually found inside the dog house.
One tool that is required for any search, day or night, indoors or out, is a flashlight. The value of a flashlight during darkness is pretty obvious, but I believe it is just as vital during daylight. You never know where a search may take you. You can be outside in the bright sun one minute and looking into a closet or attic the next minute. In addition, the flashlight helps eliminate shadows under stairwells, under vehicles, and in tight spaces. "Hiding in the shadows" is a real occurrence with suspects, and those shadows can sometimes play tricks on our eyes.
I have participated in many successful searches and few that were not so successful. I am convinced that the three traits we have discussed have contributed greatly to those successes. I am also convinced that the lack of being thorough, patient, and systematic has led to missing suspects and putting officers at risk.
Training can assist officers in developing these traits, but it really comes down to individual discipline. Make a commitment to yourself and to your brother and sister officers that you will practice these traits and I believe you will safely capture many more suspects in years to come.
Jack H. Schonely is a 26-year veteran of law enforcement and a pilot with the LAPD Air Support Division. Schonely is also the author of the book "Apprehending Fleeing Suspects: Suspect Tactics and Perimeter Containment." He can be reached at officertactics.com.