Monday, November 15, 2010

Police Snapshots For Novelists: Building Searches (Part I)

Surviving Building Searches
By Mark Young
Scene opens up: Bad guy rushes from a crime scene into a building to hide. Police close in and rush the building to make the arrest. Readers and viewers have seen this kind of action—in one form or another—played out many times. Scene ends: Bad guy is caught or shot. Good guy survives.

“Fools rushes in …” you know the rest of that line. Cops are no angels, but neither are they fools. Rushing into an unknown building is risky business. Those in law enforcement—if they have been around for any length of time— are going to take into consideration many options before they chase the bad guy inside.

There is almost an art to the business of conducting building searches. Every situation is different, and sometimes officers have to be very imaginative and resourceful to get the job done safely. This kind of operation takes training and practice. It takes a plan of operation and adequate resources to pull off successfully. Success means the bad guy winds up in cuffs and the good guys go safely home to their families at the end of shift. Anything less spells trouble.

Part II of this article on Building Searches will go into more detail what an officer must consider during the search. But an officer must be sure of their legal footing before they kick in that door and go after the crook. This article will consider some of the landmines that officers must try to avoid—as does your crime novel hero.

Generally, the bad guy is likely operating on his own turf—his residence, office, or neighborhood. Places this crook knows like needle tracks on his arm. The guy probably knows every inch of the place you are about to search. If it is the scene of a robbery or burglar, the crook probably cased this out beforehand to know the best places to run or hide if the cops show up. Right from the start, this crook has the home field advantage. An officer needs to shift that balance of knowledge to where police have the upper hand. That takes planning, communication, cooperation and discipline.

First, let us rid ourselves of the most obvious and most popular way of flushing a bad guy out into the open.  Best-case scenario: send in Fangs. All the officer has to do is seal off the area, call up the canine unit, and sit back and watch these four-legged creatures go into action. These dogs are a police officer’s best friend and the crook’s worst enemy.

Now, that would be too easy. What if canine units are not available? What if these structures are not conducive for these dogs to search?

Go to plan B.

An officer needs to back up and develop a plan of action. But first, the officer must consider a number of factors and options. If everything goes bad, this officer is going to need to justify every action he took in this operation. Particularly if someone gets hurt.

Here are some of the questions that will flash through the officer’s mind. Is the bad guy armed or does he have access to weapons and hostages? Has the guy barricaded himself? If the answer is “yes” to any of these considerations, then the officer would generally punt a decision to a supervisor and wait for SWAT to show up. Then, the officer just has to stand back and watch the show unless something else requires immediate intervention. This was learned from law enforcement’s tragic experiences at Columbine High School in 1999. Prior to this event, officers had generally been taught to sit back, contain, and call in SWAT. Law enforcement learned that in some situations, first responders must go forward and initial immediate action in order to save lives and help to control a highly volatile situation. Again, it all hinges on what kind of call the officer is facing.

Most times—unless shots are exchanged or weapons brandished—the officer is not going to know whether the suspect is armed. If a weapon was not seen, then an officer needs to decide whether it is worth going in to get this guy. I know this may sound odd, but at some point, the officer must evaluate the risk, the gain, the crime, and the liability. All in a matter of seconds.

First, why did the suspect flee? Did he run because he had outstanding warrants in the system and did not want to go to jail?  What kind of warrants—misdemeanor or felonies? Warrants for unpaid parking tickets or for armed robbery? Is he running because he stole some hubcaps or did he just commit a rape in the next block and he is facing a third strike in prison? A police officer has to have some idea why the suspect ran before busting in the door and starting a search.

If the runner has been identified, is it necessary for the officer to go in and arrest him or would it be more prudent to simply write it up and go for a warrant? Again, common sense must prevail.

An officer should gather whatever information is available in order to make a decision to start a building search. For example, maybe the officer cannot identify the suspect. They could run a records check on the residence—if that is where the suspect fled—searching for calls for service at that location and prior contacts. Utilities and other data base systems might provide additional information.
Another consideration is whether the officer has the legal right to force entry to that location. Again, going back to the reason the suspect ran. If it was a misdemeanor warrant, for example,  the officer may not have the right to go in and arrest the suspect depending upon the charges, the time of day, and whether the warrants need to be served in a public place (public thoroughfares, common walkways, or places the general public has a right to be).

Aside from the criminal charges, another consideration facing the officer is that of potential civil liability. What if the officer forces entry and did not have legal ground to do so? And what if the officer was forced to shoot and kill the suspect in defense of his own life? The officer might be absolved of any criminal wrongdoing, but civil action against the officer rises to a completely different rules and criteria.

So all these considerations—and probably a dozen other factors—all point to the officer going in to get this guy. Again, first consideration is sealing off the area so that the bad guy is contained. Second, get enough personnel on the scene to safely conduct the search. Gather as much information as you can on the structure you are about to enter. Lastly, make sure that everyone involved in the operation knows what their job is.

Not to leave readers hanging, but Part II of this article will go into the mechanics of a search. Writers do not want to bog down their story with facts and liability issues, however, these issues can be used to further make your main character twist and turn in the literary wind. Just think of the possibilities.


  1. Great article! It already had me planning the intro to my third book. Thanks for all the information that will make it more real and flesh out the character.
    - JGY

  2. Thanks, JGY, Check in when we actually cross the threshold and begin a building search. More to add to that novel.