Gaining Ground Through Tactical Tracking

While tracking down fugitives from the law has been going on for thousands of years, this "lost art" is being refined for modern police forces as the new millennium begins.

While tracking down fugitives from the law has been going on for thousands of years, this "lost art" is being refined for modern police forces as the new millennium begins.

Throughout the United Sates, police officers are increasingly being called upon to respond to situations involving paranoid survivalists, heavily armed anti-government militia members and right-wing domestic terrorists.  Unfortunately many police departments while catching up with 21st-century technology, are not trained in tactical tracking operations.  But that is changing rapidly.

Learning to Track Safely

The art of tracking has been taught in the United States for many years, mostly by former members of the U.S. Border Patrol.  Former Border Control Agent Jack Kearney taught many law enforcement officers in the 1970s and 80s.  His book, TRACKING: A Blueprint for Learning How, was a good place for aspiring police trackers to learn the craft.  Unfortunately, today there are few tracking instructors who are skilled in both the art of mantracking and tactical operations.

Enter David Scott-Donelan.  Scott-Donelan immigrated to the United States from Rhodesia in 1989 and has been actively training U.S. police and military special operations personnel in the proper methodology of tactical tracking and the engagement of hostile subjects ever since.  He runs Tactical Tracking Operations School (TTOS) out of Mesquite, Nev., but travels around the world to teach tactical tracking and trains about 300 officers and military personnel each year.

"Learning to track in the desert Southwest and having your area of operation in the wet forests of the Pacific Northwest is a marginal learning experience," he said.

David Scott-Donelan's background includes working with Rhodesia's elite SAS (Special Air Service) and the Tracker Combat Unit, which he went on to command.  He later was appointed commanding officer of Tracking and Bush Survival School at Lake Kariba in Rhodesia.

It is his ability to marry his excellent tracking skills with his tactical operational experience that makes his class so important to the law enforcement community.  Other tracking schools offer basic tracking skills but rarely go into the finer details of what it takes to close with a suspect(s) and make an apprehension without getting shot.  In Scott-Donelan's 40-hour class, the officers are quickly introduced to both individual and team tactical skills-such as hand signals.

Team Tracking

Tracking skills without solid tactical skills against armed fugitives is an invitation to disaster.  Some 20 years ago, published outdoor author and tracker Tom Brown, although an accomplished tracker, walked right into an ambush while volunteering to help a sheriff's department find a highly dangerous suspect.  Brown (unarmed) was wounded in the ambush, while the deputies were too far back to prevent the incident.  Team tracking in this case may have prevented Brown from becoming a gunshot victim.

Team tracking and tactics is one of the modules of instruction during Scott-Donelan's weeklong class.  Other areas of tactical tracking are:

"Tracking Skills and Attributes": how a tracker can follow, anticipate and immediately react to whatever situation arises.

"Visual Acuity": how to truly be observant-90 percent of tracking is visual.

"Camouflage and Concealment": how to close and approach a suspect to your tactical advantage-not the bad guy's!

"Basic Tracking Skills": the 101 of tracking.  This is where all the students get on the same page and begin to understand the concepts of types of indicators, utilizing light, assessing speed and distance of suspect(s) and dynamics (reading) of a footprint.

"Essential Elements of Information": the intelligence-gathering phase-the who, what, when, where and why.  This can include the personal history of the suspects (prior military, violent crime history) to the correct spoor (footprints) to follow.

"Assessing the Age of Tracks": a highly critical skill of a tracker but one that takes time and experience to develop.  Wind, rain, soil conditions, and sunlight all impact the aging of spoor and signs.

"Lost Spoor Procedure": outlines a set of steps for when the trail is lost.  This will happen occasionally to even the most experienced tracker.

"Immediate Action Drills": to be utilized when the suspects have been sighted.  These are team skills that need to be rehearsed to ensure an automatic response from all members.

Life-Saving Skills

After a week of training in the art of tactical tracking, the students are amazed by their newfound observation skills.

For example, an eastern state SWAT team, training in Ohio, was practicing during a mid-week "follow-up" (tracking mission) and was shocked to see how close they got to a bad guy (instructor) before seeing him.  The instructor was slowly racking a shotgun from a distance of less than 50 feet and was also shaking the small tree he was sitting under.  It was at a distance of less than 10 feet that a flank tracker finally noticed the now quiet, non-camouflaged instructor sitting under the willow tree cradling a 12-gauge pump!  By Friday, on the final, long follow-up, they would have easily picked-up the instructor.

Making the Case

Tactical tracking skills can be utilized by many officers in the law enforcement community, not just SWAT/SRT type teams.  TTOS has also trained officers from state fish and game agencies, narcotics, search and rescue teams, patrol and K-9, just to name a few.  K-9 officers in the class claim their newfound tracking skills increase their effectiveness with the dog by 50 percent.  Patrol officers, who are the first responders to many critical incidents, have utilized this training in not only following fleeing felons but also at crime scenes.  Officers have tracked burglars back to their houses and then convicted them from footwear evidence.  In Europe, detectives use footwear evidence to make cases at a rate of five times that of American detectives!  Are we missing something here?

Urban Tracking

One of the benefits of attending TTOS's Tactical Tracking class is being able to go back to your agency and show other officers what to look for in trying to find a fleeing suspect.

In the Columbus (Ohio) Police Department's Officer Survival School (OSS) there is a class being offered to patrol officers, called, Urban Tracking & Containment (UTC).  This class is sanctioned and taught by TTOS-trained instructors.  The 8-hour class, which shows the basics of tracking with survival skills on a follow-up, has been a huge success.

Wilderness Tracking

The Columbus Police Department, being a large urban police department (more than 1,800 officers and a 230-mile jurisdiction), found that it has very few officers that are outdoor activity-type people.  Most of these officers are not comfortable or prepared to operate in a wooded or forested environment.  It also found that many other police departments were in a similar situation.

A new organization called the National Wilderness Training Center for Law Enforcement is now addressing these needs with classes that focus on outdoor law enforcement education.  It is now sponsoring a variety of tactical wilderness classes in conjunction with TTOS and the National Tactical Officers Association.

Another Skill in Your Arsenal

Two incidents that have occurred in the last couple of years have changed the way law enforcement handles escaped/fleeing fugitives.  The latest incident had three militia members killing Officer Dale Claxton of Cortez, Colo., on May 29, 1998.  One of the suspects killed himself shortly afterwards but the other two are still out there, even after a 500-man posse went after them!  The sheriff in charge of the manhunt, Mike Lacy, of San Juan County, Utah, went through Scott-Donelan's class five months after the incident.  He said the suspects would now be in custody if they'd had this training prior to Claxton's death.

Said Lacy, "This has been the most beneficial training that I have ever attended.  In all my years of law enforcement I have never had such a rewarding educational experience as this one!"

Tactical tracking operations training also has many converts from federal law enforcement agencies who have had little success in finding fugitives hiding from them.  The new FBI SWAT agent in charge of the hunt for Eric Rudolph in North Carolina is also a graduate of TTOS and a big supporter of David Scott-Donelan.

Evidence of the advantages of mantracking has begun to make believers of both law enforcement and military personnel.  While not particularly "high-tech," tactical tracking is a skill that won't break down when you need it most-a skill that can last a millennium!

For more information:

Tactical Tracking Operations School:

(520) 347-5377 or e-mail:

National Wilderness Training Center:

(520) 219-4926 or e-mail:

Det. Rick Adrian is a 20-year veteran of the Columbus (Ohio) Police Department, where he is assigned to the Intelligence Bureau. He is an instructor in the department's Officer Survival School and also at the Tactical Tracking Center. This is his first contributon to POLICE.

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