How the fundamentals of tracking can benefit your police department

This skill can save critical time, prevent undue risk to the population or document crucial evidence

Many of us have heard of tracking, more accurately described as “man-tracking” though it pertains to both sexes. Sometimes the perceptions we have about tracking come to us from books, or Hollywood, where an aboriginal person shows up on a scene of a missing or wanted person. They look about with a 100-yard stare, consult some unheard voice and boldly announce that a person with a limp and a bad attitude walked in this direction seeking water, while heavily armed. These observations may be fact, they may be embellished, but the idea remains so foreign to logical concepts that we dismiss them from our police sciences because they likely would not stand in a court of law. I’m here to tell you there is fact supporting the fiction, and you too can use tracking to forensically improve the performance of your agency in certain areas.

Lineage of training

Working search and rescue in the mountains of Colorado taught me to appreciate any tool that helped me find someone who was missing and quickly deliver them to medical care or their loved ones. It was nearly two decades ago when I attended my first training with Universal Tracking Services. Among my instructors was Joel Hardin, a man who began tracking with the U.S. Border Patrol in 1965. Hardin used tracking on both borders to help find undocumented immigrants, criminals and those in need of rescue. After decades of honing his craft, he did the honorable thing and passed it on to others in need. I learned from him in the mountains surrounding Silverton, Colorado. 

Hardin taught me that there was no mysticism to tracking, no required lineage that would make me a better tracker. He imparted the step-by-step method of tracking and was fond of quipping, “people don’t levitate” whenever I couldn’t find a track. With many of his students not coming from a law enforcement background, he taught the concepts of handling a crime scene and how to preserve evidence. His principles included that tracking be treated as a science, one that could be documented and testified to in a court of law. This made the skill applicable to me in both search and rescue and manhunt scenarios. In the decades to follow, I would use it for both.

On crime scenes, I utilized tracking to better understand what happened. I have documented footprints with measurements and photographs to successfully identify and convict suspects in felony cases. I could tell where they approached from, entered into, then left a crime scene. On countless search and rescue missions I have used tracking to gather particulars about the missing quarry. During a manhunt of two escaped felons I saw tracking used to determine direction of travel, which led to the subsequent killing of one and capture of the other. This skill can save critical time, prevent undue risk to the population or document crucial evidence.

How it works

Modern police agencies still face many of the scenarios where Hardin cut his teeth — missing fugitives or those in need of rescue. As long as we lock people up, there is a risk for escape. And although search and rescue is not a major issue in metropolitan areas, there is always the possibility of an at-risk person or even a child going missing. Tracking can be a valuable resource in both settings. Although misconceptions about tracking abound, the practice is very straightforward.

The first idea is to get on the track. Using all available information, trackers will seek to establish a last seen point. With modern technology like cellphones, this can be sped up rapidly. Perhaps the person was seen on a trail near a lake, but the trail has been since walked, and the missing party remains unfound. By walking the trail and looking just off it, a track might be established. By using particulars about the missing party, we can eliminate or deduce (a size 12 shoe for a six-foot-three party) a person’s track and begin to work it.

Tracking is about training the eye to recognize patterns — patterns in shoe prints, stride and direction. Once the initial track is found, document it with photography and a drawing on a card. Many schools teach the use of a tracking stick to help determine these base parameters. In this example, I have set both the footprint and stride on my stick. This helps me move the stick back and forth in a roughly 30-degree arc to help my eye see the next track. I mark each indication of a step I see with a marker, this culminates in direction of travel and can be a valuable asset. While not infallible, it can help the process speed up if sign-cutting is employed. Sign-cutting is a process where a 90-degree arc is cut, the tracker moves forward paralleling the track and then attempts to pick up the track again to speed up the process. While this technique may be employed, the general idea is to find each and every track, until you run down your target. In certain mediums like snow or mud this is easy, though in others it is quite difficult.

Tracking teams can be deployed to run down parties who are missing. The general idea is two or three heads is often better than one. In addition, flankers on a tracking team can serve as heads-up (armed) cover in situations where the missing party may not want to be found. In these settings, we can see tracking serve both practical and tactical scenarios. As mentioned above, those versed in tracking can accurately describe tracks placed in a crime scene, helping to clarify the understanding for a prosecutor or jury, whether the medium be mud, blood or snow.

Tracking as a skill has been quietly growing across the U.S. over the last couple decades thanks to people like Hardin. Reaching out through local search and rescue units or through the tracking training companies themselves may prove beneficial, revealing a resource already in your area. Barring that, contracting these companies and having key personnel trained will pay major dividends for your agency.  Individuals trained through a reputable school can give your agency facts about a missing party, document and secure their findings, then testify to their training and observations in a court of law. This is a powerful ally, one based in forensic science, which can help place dangerous threats into custody, provide a deeper understanding of crime scene footprints or return missing people to safety.


Photo Credit: All photos used in this article were taken by Paulina Pestridge.

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