The Art of the Search

By Jack H. Schonely  |   Apr 30, 2020

Searching for suspects has always been an unpredictable and risk-drenched mission. It’s a task all of us in law enforcement face on a regular basis. The risk involved with any search cannot be totally eliminated; however, it can be mitigated through training, experience, technology, a proper mindset, and the consistent use of good habits.

Every search is unique. Each situation needs to be approached in a way that will keep law enforcement safe while attempting to locate the suspect. It sounds easy enough, but search tactics and techniques must be trained, discussed, and practiced on a regular basis—they are perishable skills, after all.

Mindset

An officer’s mindset during the search is a topic that does not get the attention it deserves. We’re all human, and even the most experienced officers can be influenced by the circumstances that are presented to us before a search. If you enter a building to search believing that the suspect is most likely NOT inside, you are setting yourself up for failure. With this mindset, officers often run into the problem of the “foot sticking out of the laundry pile”: If you’ve convinced yourself that the suspect isn’t inside the location, your eyes might focus on that foot, but your brain ignores it because “the suspect isn’t here.”

In addition, most officers conduct their searches differently when they truly believe that the suspect is inside. The pace, the tactics, the thoroughness—it’s all different. This is a mistake, and it is one that must be identified and corrected before any search is initiated.

The best practice is to approach every single search as if the suspect is in your search area no matter what the circumstances may be. “He is in there, and I am going to find him” should be what you tell yourself before you begin each and every search. It is a simple rule to follow, and it can only create positive results.

The best example I can think of—one that the majority of law enforcement can relate to—is the frequent alarm call at a particular business. I’m sure you can picture it: A senior officer complaining to a new officer, “Not this place again. I’ve been here a dozen times in the past year. It’s always a false alarm.” That is a mindset that will result in a tactical error and possible disaster if it is not recognized and corrected. The simple fix is telling yourself, “Tonight, he is in there and I am going to find him.”

Thorough, Patient, Systematic

Applying these three words to every search you do will result in locating more suspects. It’s easy to miss a suspect during a search; they hide in places we do not expect, and we let common sense get in our way. That combination can and does result in officers missing a hiding suspect.

Being thorough simply means that you look everywhere within your search area—even in places that make no sense to you. When you find yourself thinking, “Well, he couldn’t be there because it’s too high,” or, “it’s too small a space, he couldn’t fit,” it’s not a reason to skip the area; in fact, thoughts like these are reasons you need to search that area.

Thousands of criminals have been found by law enforcement hiding in places that are surprising, bizarre, or seemingly impossible. You must program yourself to look in the places that, to you, seem unlikely at first glance. Criminals in hiding are often desperate and do not want to be located. They will get very creative to avoid capture. By executing thorough searches, you’ll be able to make sure that their creativity doesn’t get the best of you.

Patience is a vital element of the search. You must slow down in order for your brain to keep up with your eyes. A search is not a timed event; take your time and do it right. Your personal safety and the safety of the officers around you require that you move at a pace that allows you to soak in what you’re seeing while utilizing proper tactics. A steady, patient pace will put yourself and your fellow officers in the best position possible during the search.

I personally believe that the number one error made by most officers during a search is that they move too fast. As I continue to train law enforcement, I always stress the “patience factor” as much as I can, whether I’m standing in front of fresh recruits or tenured patrol officers. It truly is a major key to a safe and successful search.

Utilizing a systematic approach means that you formulate a plan to cover a search area and then stick to the plan. If you start to skip some things, you increase the chance of missing something. Of course, this often leads to missing the suspect entirely. Both indoor and outdoor searches should be conducted using a systematic approach. 

When you add being thorough and patient to being systematic, you increase your chances of success dramatically. In order for all of these practices to come together successfully, you must apply one final word: consistency. If you only apply a good mindset or patience to some searches and not others, you may experience some successful searches, but you’ll also have as many failed searches.

The best way for me to sell these ideas is pretty simple: You rarely know who exactly you are searching for. You rarely know how they will react if you locate them. The results of searching for a criminal can range from harmless to fatal, so I believe you should conduct every search the same way no matter what the suspect is wanted for. After all, officers have been killed by suspects who shoplifted a six-pack of beer.

Be prepared for the worst-case scenario on each and every search you make, and continue to practice your tactical search skills whenever you are able. Remember to keep the right mindset during your search, and be consistently thorough, patient, and systematic. Only then could you be sure that you’re keeping yourself and your fellow officers safe.