Surviving Building Searches
By Mark Young
Scene: A woman screams from inside a nearby house. Witnesses hear breaking glass and a man snarling out profanities. An unknown truck angles across the driveway, left in park, door standing ajar. Neighbors begin calling 9-1-1. You are a patrol officer. Dispatch sends you to this call.
How do you handle this case?
During our last post on building searches, we looked at all the information and options officers must consider before they even get to the front door. What kind of call is this? Weapons involved? Hostages? Prior calls for service? How many resources do we need to handle this situation? Can one officer handle this, or does the whole patrol team need to start rolling? All these considerations and more are running through the officer’s mind in route to the call.
One of the critical components of these calls is the coordination between officer and dispatcher. Key bits of information will normally be fed to officers before they ever get to the front door. Dispatchers will be pulling up information from various databases: calls for service to this residence, prior contacts, and certain utility information if available. If the neighbors provided vehicle information, that truck will be run and the registered owner (RO) identified. Wants and warrants will be checked on the RO, as well as anyone affiliated with that address.
On this call, dispatch advises that the residence belongs to a female who has prior contact information—including a restraining order against … you guessed it, the RO of the truck. So now, the officer is armed with a little more information that might shed light on today’s disturbance. It also gives the officer broader latitude to deal with this situation if the RO is on the premises. An arrest can be made on the spot for violation of the court-mandated restraining order, even if there are no other charges available at the time. But given the violent history between these two people, a diligent and alert officer should be able to hook and book this violator.
Even if the woman called the RO and invited him over—which happens because love is blind and some people in love lack sound judgment—the man is still in violation of the order. Just from the information provided by neighbors, an officer would probably determine that domestic violence might be the nature of this call.
So what do you do? Run up to the front steps, kick in the front door, and start looking for this scumbag?
Whoa, John Wayne. Back up a few steps and take a deep breath. Due to the nature of the call, you are going to want to make sure backup is on the way. Remember, domestic violence calls are one of the high-risk calls that get officers killed or injured. It can be a very volatile situation. You need all the help dispatch can send your way—if there are enough officers on duty and calls for service allow.
Your backup just arrived. What is your next step? Kick in the door or give knock and notice? It all depends—and this is why the job is so interesting. Every call is different. Circumstances can change faster than a traffic light switching from yellow to red. Officers always need to be their toes, able to wade through a flood of incoming information in order to make the right choice at the right time.
Years ago, officers might have been able to force they way in like Dirty Harry and take care of business no matter what happened. In these litigious times, an officer must venture forth carefully—this all becomes part of surviving the job. Survival can be broken down into three primary categories—physical, legal, and organizational. Physical: Don’t get shot. Legal: Follow the law at all times. Organizational: Don’t give supervisors ammunition to hit you with a personnel investigation.
Getting back to our disturbance call, what do we need to get inside the house. Courts frown on officers pushing the boundaries of knock and notice and fourth-amendment protection (Remember legal survival?). If you are going to break the normal rules of knock and notice, you’d better be armed with exigent circumstances.
Here is one interpretation of exigent circumstances: “Those circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry (or other relevant prompt action) was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of a suspect, or some other consequence improperly frustrating legitimate law enforcement efforts.' [United States v. McConney, 728 F.2d 1195, 1199 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 824 (1984).] Officers hear a lot of about this “reasonable person” from the courts but rarely do these legal scholars actually define what they mean by reasonable. What seems reasonable to an officer—in the dark, facing armed suspects, listening to the screams of victims—may not seem reasonable to the court during a preliminary hearing weeks or months later when everything has returned to normal.
A woman screaming within earshot might make a reasonable police officer believe exigent circumstances exists. Translation: You can kick in the door, Harry. Someone needs your help. This gets an officer inside without knocking and announcing. Again, under these circumstances a reasonable officer might come to the conclusion that an angry and violent man—with a history of firearms—just might shoot an officer or the victim before officers can intervene. However, officers should start letting people know the police have arrived once they get inside. This helps the officer survive legal and organizational threats, although this raises the physical threat. Common sense must prevail.
warrantless entries as long as the government did not create those exigencies. You’ve seen those movie scenes where a police officer breaks a window, turns to his partner and says, “look’s like a break-in in progress.” And in they go. This kind of monkey business would get everything they find inside the premises thrown out of court, while creating serious legal issues.
So now you’re ready to enter the dwelling. Go ahead and start that search. Work with a partner, watch both your backs, and go slowly—clearing every room before you enter the next. Remember the basics learned in training: hold flashlight away from your body so you don’t offer the bad guy a target; use soft- soled shoes; follow the ABCs of weapons use; use stealth; and use all of your senses—including common sense. Hook’em and book’em if you find the suspect.
Moments like these erase all the hours of boredom … until it comes time to write the report. Paperwork is always the cost of doing business. And you had better make sure that everything that happened when you forced entry is thoroughly documented in the report. Testifying on the stand is the wrong time to remember an important detail you failed to include in your report. The district attorney will hang his head, the defense attorney will roll his eyes, and you can count on a frown coming your way from the judge—if not something more stern. Be smart and write everything down to ensure legal and organizational survival. You must survive a long career ahead.
Now it is time to go home until the next shift. Enjoy life. Relish the time away from the job. You made it through another day. As one military veteran replied at the end of his career: “Life is good. I’m still standing and sucking air.”
Novelist: Use these realistic situations to create all kinds of tensions and havoc in your story. Go ahead and let your creative mind run free. You might be surprised at how fast your main character gets into trouble. And your readers will want to turn those pages to see if their hero survives. Everyone wins—except maybe the bad guy.