The Hidden Dangers of Suspect Searches

POLICE SWAT expert and retired LEO Bob O'Brien tells you seven tales from his experiences to teach about the danger of missing a hidden suspect during a search.

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Previously, I've mentioned the consequences of not locating hidden suspects during searches. These consequences can range from dire and deadly to merely lucky close calls. Ideally, they become lifelong learning experiences never to be repeated.

I've also previously talked about the many advantages of employing SWAT for searches, the "6 Ts" (time, tactics, troops, technology, training, techniques). And I also recommended SWAT teams add a seventh "T" (tenacity) in the form of "tunnel rats." K-9 units also mitigate the extreme danger posed in searches of confined spaces.

As previously noted by retired Cleveland Police SWAT Sgt. Tom Horan, at some point, "Someone has to stick their tomato (head) in" to ensure the location is clear and secure. Yet, despite all the training, tactics and technology available to us, some hidden suspects are still missed. This begs the natural question β€” with all these advantages, how is it possible to miss any hidden suspects?

Perhaps the following real-world examples from my department (over the span of many years) will help illustrate how, and why, we miss hidden suspects once in a great while.

Lesson 1

Numerous uniformed officers responding to a burglary in progress conduct an extensive, thorough search, and then declare the building clear and secure. Later, during the evidence search, an officer opens a kitchen cabinet only to accidentally discover the burglar hiding inside the cabinet.

Lesson 2

During a stolen-vehicle pursuit, the suspect shoots at officers, bails out, and then runs into an abandoned, partially torn-down school. A perimeter is quickly established, and SWAT is called out to conduct the search. After an exhaustive several-hour search, including searching a two-story high pile of bricks and rubble, the "secure" signal is given.

The next day, the suspect is arrested (without incident). During the entire SWAT search, he'd hidden motionless (with his gun) under a car that two uniformed officers were using as cover. The two cops never knew how close they'd come to disaster.

Lesson 3

During a vehicle pursuit, the driver fired multiple shots at a pursuing sergeant, then bailed out and ran into an abandoned six-story building.  SWAT was called out, but before they arrived, uniform officers began their own search. After several hours, they ended their unsuccessful search.

Shortly afterward, alert SWAT officers maintaining their perimeter spotted the suspect on foot and arrested him. He'd hidden the entire time in the farthest, darkest corner of a sub-basement room. Inside, SWAT found his sawed-off .22 rifle β€” loaded with extra ammo β€” aimed directly at the "fatal funnel" doorway. 

Lesson 4

Patrol pursues a suspect into a neighboring occupied home, but the occupants are able to escape. A perimeter is immediately set up, and SWAT is called. After a number of hours of "talking to an empty house," SWAT conducts a slow, methodical search. The home is empty, and turned back over to the occupants. Early the following morning, SWAT is called out to the same home, when the occupants hear "mumbling" from behind the wall of a third-floor bedroom.

SWAT locates, negotiates, and arrests the suspect who had been hiding the entire time. SWAT had missed the suspect in the previous search. Turns out the suspect was hiding in an inaccessible recess within an attic crawl space. SWAT was lucky; the occupants were even luckier.

Lesson 5

During a drug raid, a female suspect smashed through the closed window of the second-floor apartment building, landing jaw-first onto a picket fence, severely injured. Meanwhile the SWAT entry team completed its search and announced that the apartment was secure.

Afterward, during the evidence search phase, a female agent came face-to-face with an undetected suspect. He was inside the bedroom closet, surrounded by clothes, hanging by his arms, with a loaded 9mm in his waistband.

Turns out when SWAT hit the apartment door, he and his girlfriend ran into the bedroom. The male then threw his girlfriend through the window (onto the picket fence) and then hid in the closet. 

Lesson 6

Patrol officers searching a church for a burglar come to the last room.  With two officers covering him, the third officer cautiously opens the closet door. Without warning, the hidden suspect opens fire, wounding all three officers, before being shot and killed by return fire.

Lesson 7

During a massive manhunt for a police murderer, the suspect's vehicle was located empty behind apartment buildings. K-9's were brought out; the suspect's trail was picked up, but soon lost at the curb of the next street. Although a K-9 did show "some interest" in a nearby apartment building doorway, the universal assumption was that the suspect had escaped by vehicle.

The manhunt ended elsewhere with the suspect's arrest. He told police he'd watched the first search from an apartment in the original building the K-9 had alerted on.

Each of these missed suspects are lessons learned, never to be repeated (hopefully). The reality is that hidden suspects will always be a possibility.


Searching for Hidden Suspects

Confined Spaces and Tunnel Rats

Rethinking Suspect Searches

Duty Dangers: Into the Hearts of Darkness

About the Author
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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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