Safe Searching: The Standing Basic Search

We search people in a variety of field situations and legal circumstances. As far as officer safety skills are concerned, I believe pat search techniques to be one of the most critical skills given too little emphasis in training, and therefore worthy of analysis.

Editor's note: View our related photo gallery, "Safe Pat-Down Searches."

Searching people in a standing position is something deputies and officers do every day across the nation. We search people in a variety of field situations and legal circumstances. But for the purpose of this article, I am going to focus on what is commonly referred to as a pat search or Terry search for weapons. As far as officer safety skills are concerned, I believe pat search techniques to be one of the most critical skills given too little emphasis in training, and therefore worthy of analysis.

The Analysis

Searching people in the field for readily accessible weapons is a tactical necessity to keep us safe. It is also a high frequency activity. When analyzing the risk, it's important to pay attention to what happens to law enforcement officers when we are attacked. According to the 2009 edition of the FBI's Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 81.4 percent of the 590,507 officers assaulted in 2009 were attacked by an assailant using personal weapons (e.g. hands, fists, or feet), resulting in the highest percentage of injuries to the officers. This statistic is consistent with the FBI statistics from the previous 10 years, and therefore a fairly reliable indicator of future trends.

How does this fit within the context of a pat search? If you think about it, in order to attack an officer with personal weapons, the assailant must be close enough to strike or grapple, the same distance you are at when you search a person. So how can you protect yourself when you do your search? Use a method or technique that meets three key objectives: safe, effective, and expedient.

By safe, I mean that which exposes you to the minimal amount of risk. By effective, I mean that which affords the best opportunity to find what you are looking for. By expedient, I mean simple and quick, though not at the expense of safety or effectiveness. Your chosen method should facilitate not only a safe and effective search, but also other force options such as control holds, take-down techniques, and handcuffing.

Although I normally refrain from offering a "best" or "safest" technique, pat searching will be my exception. I will explain the three critical components of the search technique, and why these are so important to your safety.

The Search

The technique I am presenting is referred to simply as the Standing Basic Search. Control is the primary issue in conducting a safe search. The Standing Basic Search represents the minimal level of control you are willing to establish over a person while searching him or her. Focusing on the Standing Basic Search, there are three keys to control:

  • Position the body
  • Limit the mobility
  • Control the hands

Position the Body

Because we are innately geared toward forward movement, most aggressors, whether formally trained or not, will attack in a forward direction. Therefore, you are safer positioning yourself behind the person, rather than in front. Positioning yourself behind does not preclude a rearward attack (e.g. a rear kick, or rear elbow), but combined with the remaining two keys to control, greatly reduces a suspect's ability to attack you effectively.

Stance is also a factor in positioning. Since you search with your hands, you must be close enough to touch the areas you intend to search. In the Standing Basic Search, you will stand with your gun leg back in a balanced and bladed stance. This stance gives you the ability to create some space between your gun and the person you are searching. It also provides a platform for mobility and appropriate defensive reactions.[PAGEBREAK]

Limit the Mobility

Once you are behind the person, you want to limit his mobility. To do that, you have him widen his stance. The amount varies, because this part of the technique is also used to offset a disparity in height between a taller person and a shorter officer. Even if there is minimal height disparity, you want to have the suspect widen his stance because this adversely affects or limits his mobility.

To initiate movement from a widened stance (such as lunging forward or turning around preparatory to attack) the human body will instinctively move one or both legs toward its centerline. This movement creates more time for you to perceive resistance and react appropriately. In combative situations, fractions of a second can mean the difference between an advantage and a disadvantage.

Control the Hands

Of the personal weapons aggressors can use to hurt you, their hands should be your greatest concern. A suspect's hands can be used to strike, grab, choke, and manipulate weapons. Are you better off controlling one or both hands? Controlling only one hand leaves the other hand free to assault you or manipulate a weapon. Therefore, you should control both hands.

One way some officers attempt to do this is to have the person place her hands on a stationary object, such as a wall or the hood of a car. However, this does not control the hands, it merely isolates them. Worse, this gives her two more points of stability and balance from which to initiate an attack.

Another common method is to have the person place his hands in the small of his back. A variety of methods can be used to grab and hold both of the suspect's hands from this position. Although better than the first example, this method is not the optimal way to control the hands, for three very important reasons.

Don't Allow Waistband Access

First, knowing what you know about where people are most likely to conceal weapons (I'll call them "hot zones"), I'm sure you'll agree the waistband (front and rear) is at or near the top of the list. This makes instructing someone to put his hands at the small of her back a risky proposition.

Considering human perception and reaction times, you are placing yourself at a tactical disadvantage by giving the person an opportunity to "comply" with your request by moving her hands toward her waistband, a primary "hot zone." If you told her to do it, you must allow that movement. How quickly can you distinguish between a person who is compliant, and one who is moving toward a "hot zone," intending to arm herself? How quickly can you react to the threat? Use a training gun or training knife, and work through some scenarios; you'll see what I mean.

Next, if you agree the rear waistband is one of the high-risk "hot zones," you should avoid obscuring that area with the person's hands. Although proponents of controlling the hands in this location claim they adequately search the rear waistband area, when I make observations in the field, I see just the opposite.

Thirdly, once you have a hold of the person's hands, you can use this connection to your advantage should you need to overcome resistant or combative behavior. How much control can you effect over the person with his hands behind his back at waist level? Some, but not as much as you might think. Advocates of this hand control position suggest disengaging from the person by shoving her forward.

As I mentioned before, you are innately wired for forward movement. Throughout our lives, we crawl, walk, run, and stumble forward. Our central nervous systems develop an orientation bias toward forward movement. We become adept at recovering our balance moving forward, but not backward. An aggressor's ability to recover her balance directly corresponds to her ability to re-initiate an attack. You can use this to your advantage, controlling an aggressor's balance by breaking her vertical plane in a backward direction, rather than forward. To do this most effectively, the subject's hands should not be at waist level.[PAGEBREAK]

"Hands on Your Head!"

The optimal way to safely and effectively address all three concerns-positioning the body, limiting the mobility, controlling the hands-is to have the person place his hands behind his head. Why? When was the last time you encountered a person who had a gun, knife, hammer, or other dangerous weapon attached to his or her head? As a practical matter, the odds of a person effectively concealing a dangerous weapon there are quite small. Therefore, you can direct a subject's hands toward his head with minimal concern about distinguishing between compliance and arming.

If you agree with that, then you can also agree that with this method you need not be concerned about obscuring a high-risk area to be searched. If you direct the person's hands to the back of his head, and instead he reaches for his waistband, you now have noncompliance, which is more easily identified. There's your "red flag," calling you to action.

Lastly, when you have to overcome resistant or combative behavior, you can much more effectively control the person's body by breaking his vertical plane backward, rather than forward. This is most easily accomplished when the hands are linked to the head rather than the waist. There are three simple and effective takedown techniques from the Standing Basic Search position, which is a topic for another day.

Proper Technique

Now let's look at how to properly execute the Standing Basic Search. The first step is to have the person place his hands behind his head, with fingers interlocked. Next, have him turn away from you or maneuver behind him. From a bladed stance, safely close the distance and use your lead (non-dominant) hand to grip his hands. The grip is important: start from the top (pinky fingers) and establish a firm grip, using your thumb to "lace up" his fingers. Make sure you anchor the hands to the base of the skull by exerting downward force. Maintaining your gun leg back, use your free hand to thoroughly and systematically search the readily accessible areas on the matching side of the subject's body (right hand searches person's right body half). If this is a search where it is legally permissible to reach into the pockets (e.g. a parole search), you can easily do so from this position.

Once you've completed one half of the subject's body, switch the gripping hands and search the other half, again using the matching hand. Notice your stance does not change. Depending on the size of the person you are searching, you may have to shuffle step in the direction of the second half prior to searching, but your gun leg stays back. When you complete your search, place your free hand on the upper back of the person and shuffle step back before further directing the subject's movement.

Depending on the size of the officer versus the size of the person being searched, the downward limit of this search technique is about at the area on the person's legs where "cargo" pockets would be. Under most circumstances, the lower legs are not considered readily accessible areas. However, if you are concerned about those areas and you are legally justified, they should be searched using a technique that meets the same three criteria discussed here.

Simple Yet Effective

The Standing Basic Search offers a simple yet effective way to efficiently and safely conduct a pat-down search. By using the Standing Basic Search, you establish hand and body control of the person you are searching, with a minimal amount of labor. Should you feel the need to gain more control over the person you are searching, you can escalate to a Standing Modified Search or a High-Risk Kneeling Search, both of which are topic for another discussion at another time.

Whether you adopt the Standing Basic Search technique or not, consider all the risk factors involved in searching people, and process those in ways that make sense to you so that your searches will be safe and effective.

Sgt. James Harbison is the Basic Academy Coordinator at the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Office of the Sheriff Law Enforcement Training Center, where he teaches defensive tactics and physical fitness.

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