Structure Searches

Thousands of times a day in this country peace officers search homes, businesses, schools, and other structures for hidden offenders. Structure searches can turn into a high-risk assignment for the officers performing them.

Shortly before 6 a.m., a 39-year old patrolman was shot fatally during a burglary at a clothing store. With backup officers en route but not yet on the scene, the officer entered the structure alone, began a search, and got into a struggle with a male adult. The subject disarmed the officer and shot him with his own 38-caliber service weapon. The bullet passed through a gap on the side of the officer's vest and pierced his heart.

Early in the afternoon on the same day, sheriff's deputies were searching a home for two jail escapees. A deputy opened the door to a bedroom and was hit in the head and below his body armor with several revolver rounds. He died of his injuries.

Thousands of times a day in this country peace officers search homes, businesses, schools, and other structures for hidden offenders. Structure searches can turn into a high-risk assignment for the officers performing them. They are made all the more dangerous by the presence of one or more searching errors that can lead to unnecessary bloodshed.

But none of these "fatal errors" has to happen. There are a number of effective steps that you can take to carry out this vital task safely. The first is to find out what you're dealing with.

Gather Information

Assembling as much information as possible before starting your search will make your efforts safer and more effective. Although you don't want to be paralyzed into inaction because you don't have every single question answered, you should attempt to answer the following, key queries:

What is the layout of the structure to be searched?
What do you know about the offender(s)?
What crimes are known or suspected?
Are there believed to be weapons involved? (A safe assumption is that deadly weapons are always a potential danger.)
What was the apparent point of entry?
Who else may be inside?
What dangers may lurk outside the structure?
What don't you know about the situation that could pose a danger?

Get Assistance

Once you've gathered as much information as possible about the task before you, make sure you have enough help to do the job right.

Structure searches are multiple officer jobs. Never start one alone. You should have a search partner with you at all times, with one or more officers remaining outside to watch for offenders who may dash from the building.

The size and configuration of the structure to be searched will help dictate how much help you'll need. Two officers inside and two outside (at diagonally opposite corners of the structure) may be adequate for the search of a residence. On the other hand, multiple two-officer search teams inside and half a dozen officers on watch outside may be necessary for the proper search of a large, irregularly configured building.

Wait for adequate backup to arrive before beginning an interior search. Remain outside and behind cover until help arrives, even if doing so gives an offender an opportunity to flee.  If you're unable to assemble enough help to adequately cover both the inside and outside, abandon the exterior and take your assistance inside. It is better to allow a flushed offender to escape than to endanger yourself by relying on insufficient searching help.

Make a Safe Approach and Entry

Don't wait until you're inside a structure to start looking for danger. Officers have been murdered by lookouts, getaway drivers, and burglars' backups that were positioned outside buildings. As you approach the scene, look for anything suspicious, such as vehicles parked where they shouldn't be. Use good cover tactics and stay alert for sudden threats.

Once you and your search partner are ready to make entry, do so quickly. Never linger in a doorway or other opening. If possible, utilize an entry point other than the one apparently used by the offender. He may be waiting just inside.

Announcing your presence as "the police" is a decision to be made on a case-by-case basis. If you feel there is a good chance innocents are inside, such as residents or a cleaning crew, announcing yourself and then waiting a minute or two or before entering is probably a good idea. If you're fairly certain only bad guys are inside and they're likely already aware of your presence, an announcement may only endanger you and your partners. (But in the case of a K-9 deployment, an announcement should always precede the release of the dog.)

If you are entering via an inward-opening door, throw it open forcefully to reveal anyone concealed behind it. You and your partner should move rapidly through the opening, wrapping yourselves around the doorframe to minimize exposure. (Decide in advance who will go first to prevent a collision in the doorway.) Once you are inside, keep your back against the wall and scan visually for immediate threats with your weapon in hand. Move quickly to solid cover and start your search from there.

Coordinate with Partners

Stay in close touch by radio with all of the officers on the scene of a structure search. Remain in constant communication with your dispatcher, too. He or she may be able to feed you additional information, such as reports of additional interior alarms being tripped.

Poor coordination and communication can lead to fatal surprises, including officers shot by their peers in a case of mistaken identity. To prevent such a tragedy, it's important that everyone know where everyone else is and what is to happen next.

Once you're inside a structure, hand signals may be preferable to spoken commands. Realize, too, that a chattering radio can give away your position. Maintain good sound discipline even as you listen intently for giveaway noises from your adversary. It's a good idea to remain still and simply listen from time to time.

You and your search partners should make at least a preliminary "plan of attack" before entering a structure. Once inside, one officer at a time should move from one source of cover to another while the other provides cover. Then reverse the roles. Continue the "move, search, and cover" routine until the operation is complete. This is not the place for freelance searching by anyone. Neither member of the team should leave the other's sight.[PAGEBREAK]Think Cover

Don't forget that cover is relative. A barrier that might stop a low-velocity handgun round isn't much help if you're under fire from a rifle-wielding attacker. You want the best cover you can access quickly. The best cover in the world won't be of much help if it is 100 yards away and you are under fire. Inside a structure, heavy furniture may be the best cover you can anticipate.

Once you find good cover, use it carefully. Keep covered what you don't want to lose. Expose as little of yourself as possible when you look from behind cover. Peek quick and low, and try to avoid looking twice from exactly the same place. "Think cover" throughout a building search. Next to your search partner, cover is your best friend.

Pay Attention to Positioning

Everything you learned about safe positioning in your officer survival training is applicable during a structure search. Stay alert for surprises. Be conscious of the location of every member of the search team. Have an escape route in mind in case a quick retreat becomes necessary. Don't pass by unsecured doors or hallways. Pay special attention to closets, storage areas, attics, basements, and crawl spaces. Be prepared to search anywhere a human body-including a small and flexible one-might be concealed.

With a multiple-story structure, consider starting at the top and working down floor by floor to permit an offender to be flushed out rather than trapped in a position he must defend. You may need to post officers on each floor to prevent an offender from back-tracking via stairs or elevators into an area already cleared. On a large structure, you might use chalk or bits of tape to mark doors and areas already covered.

Do not stand directly in front of a door you are about to open. Don't move into another officer's potential line of fire or otherwise block his vision. And never put a potential threat behind you.

Avoid Complacency

Complacency and carelessness can kill you. So can making a dangerous assumption. These come in various shapes and sizes, but can include the following:

"Cornered crooks will surrender."
"All burglar alarms are false."
"If the bad guy was here, he's already left the building."
"Police search dogs are infallible."

The only safe assumption to make about a structure search is that it is a potentially dangerous undertaking. It is deserving of your full attention and your best survival skills.

Apathy can be one of your deadliest enemies during a structure search. Don't allow it to creep into your subconscious or dictate your actions. Stay sharp. Be on the lookout for the next threat to appear without warning. If you sniff out one offender, carefully secure and search him. Then, remove him under guard and resume your search for the next one, even if you believe he was alone. Do not lower your level of alertness until you are absolutely certain that the search is over and the danger has passed. If you feel you may have missed a hidden offender, repeat the search as many times as necessary until you feel comfortable that the place really is clean.

Take Your Time

Hurrying a structure search can have fatal consequences. You have not saved time if you or another officer has to return and do it again because the first effort was sloppy or incomplete. A safe structure search demands your full attention as a street-savvy professional, and that means taking the time to do it right.

You don't want a hidden offender to later escape because you rushed past his hiding place. And you certainly do not want to give him the opportunity to attack you or your search partner because you got careless in an effort to save time. That next call can wait until you finish doing the job right.

Critique Performance

When the operation is over and the area secured, discuss with your search partners what went well, what was learned, and what might have been done better.

Then, critique your own handling of the challenge. What would you like to do differently next time? You may even be able to learn things from a captured offender. Where was he hiding? Did he hear or see the searchers? When? Were they vulnerable to him?

Take all of the information you gather into account for planning your next search. Practice what you have learned. It just may help to save your life the next time out.

Stay safe by always looking out for the next threat, communicating with your search partners, and critiquing yourself honestly when the search is done so as to get better (and safer) for the next one.

Gerald W. Garner, a member of the POLICE Advisory Board, is a 34-year veteran of law enforcement. He has authored six books on law enforcement topics.

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