Never underestimate the risk of this search warrant

We must re-evaluate how law enforcement approaches serving search warrants involving child pornography


This article is reprinted with permission from Calibre Press

By Lieutenant Carl Wittstruck

As I read the details of the two FBI agents killed in Sunrise, Florida on February 2, 2021, I reflected on two similar situations from the area where I first worked as a police officer.  

Law enforcement officers block an area where a shooting killed two FBI agents while serving an arrest warrant, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla.
Law enforcement officers block an area where a shooting killed two FBI agents while serving an arrest warrant, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

On June 13, 2017, a Virginia Beach police officer was shot multiple times while serving a search warrant for the distribution of child pornography on electronic devices. He survived his injuries.

On January 18, 2014, detectives with the Chesapeake Police Department's Internet Crimes against Children Unit were serving a search warrant for child pornography when shots are fired from inside of the residence. The suspect took his own life with his last shot.

Thankfully, these events did not end as tragically as the Sunrise incident, but they did become the catalyst for conversations about the planning and resources used at my department when serving search warrants involving child pornography.

I reached out to other law enforcement officers, tactical teams and organizations that provide law enforcement training. I asked for their thoughts on the topic, and if anyone had noticed any correlations and the measures, if any, that were adopted. I was met with a disconcerting silence. I began to believe that the events in my area may have been a strange coincidence or isolated events.

My belief changed on February 2, 2021, and those events prompted me to look at this topic again.

Threat assessment

When developing the operational plan to serve a search warrant for child pornography, investigators may use a matrix or statistical analysis to determine the threat the suspect poses to law enforcement.

A drawback to this approach is that a numerical rating based on the type of crime, previous criminal history, acts of violence and potential for fortified entry points at the residence does not take into account the subsequent consequences for the suspect when confronted by law enforcement. Therefore, the use of tactical resources or other methods may not be considered or even an option under the policies covering search warrant operations.

When serving any type of search warrant, risk is always present but what other factors need to be considered with these types of offenders?

Understanding the suspect's end game 

From the suspect’s perspective, if arrested on child pornography charges, the crimes they have perpetrated on the innocent will be brought to light. Press releases will be issued, the media will report the details and the internet will provide the information available for all to see. Community outrage will soon follow. A stigma will be associated with their name.   

Employment may be terminated. Professional licenses and certifications will be suspended or revoked. Friends and relatives will distance themselves. Spouses or partners will feel betrayed. Family units are torn apart. The suspect’s ability to interact with their own minor children will be restricted.    

If convicted of child pornography charges, defendants face lengthy prison terms and in the hierarchy of the prison population, they will not be viewed favorably. If parole or probation is ever granted, they will be placed on a list of registered sex offenders.

When you take these factors into consideration, they become powerful motivators for these individuals to default to extreme measures. Destroying evidence, shooting at the police, or taking their own life the moment they are confronted could be part of their “end game” plan.

Additional risk assessment considerations

When assessing the risks associated with serving search warrants on child pornography suspects, other factors that could affect our judgment are:

  • The suspect may have no prior criminal history. 
  • Suspects in child pornography cases cross all socioeconomic lines. If you search the internet for persons arrested in connection with child pornography cases, you will find pastors, professors, teachers and, unfortunately, a few law enforcement officers. Your suspect may have been a respected member of the community or led a quiet life, albeit a double one.
  • To some degree, your suspect is technologically savvy and intelligent. Many employ sophisticated computer programs, aliases, software and dark web browsers to avoid detection. The suspect may have pre-planned measures to wipe their electronics of illegal content. 
  • The evidence to be recovered is usually stored in an electronic format, which is not be viewed the same as an investigation where drugs, guns and money are an element.  
  • The type of residence or area the search warrant is served may not be in a “high-crime area.” Suspects involved in child pornography or sexual exploitation of minors are often not who you would envision them to be. Jeffrey Epstein’s net worth at the time of his death was estimated to be at least $500 million.
  • As these crimes often occur on the internet and in privacy, the intelligence-gathering process may not reveal as much information as we would like it to. An Internet Service Provider's address and customer name may be all the information that can be found. Informants, known associates, prior law enforcement contacts and other sources of information traditionally used in other investigations may not be available.

In light of the recent events, law enforcement should not let the tragic past come back to haunt us again. We should re-evaluate the manner in which we approach search warrants involving child pornography.   


About the author

Lieutenant Carl Wittstruck is a 25-year veteran of the Chesapeake (Virginia) Police Department. He retired in September 2019. During his career, he spent 20 years as a member of the SWAT team. His other assignments included patrol, field training, bike patrol, street crimes, police academy and as the commanding officer of the Ethics & Conduct Unit. In May 2017, he retired as a Master Gunnery Sergeant, United States Marine Corps Reserves. Since October 2019, he has been employed at the Gulf Shores (Alabama_ Police Department where he serves as a detective in the Criminal Investigations Division. 

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