Watch out for the 'dropsies'
Suspects have a lot of reasons for getting things down low
While watching a rerun of Adam-12, a scene reminded me of an important tactical tip. Rookie officer Jim Reed is conducting a field interview with a hippie (the 70s, you know) and asks for identification. The suspect clumsily drops his wallet and leans down to pick it up. Street-savvy FTO Pete Malloy commands the suspect to stop and promptly does a pat-down of the hippy’s bell-bottom polyester pants and finds an ankle holster complete with a snub-nosed revolver. Lesson learned – watch out for the dropsies.
I was similarly duped not many years ago investigating a cell phone theft on a university campus. Our tech guys had pinged the stolen phone and narrowed the location down to the south side of a certain classroom. When I approached who I thought was the suspect, a student in a nearby seat dropped her Big Gulp and made a bit of a show cleaning it up and tossing it into a nearby trash can. After I checked out my first suspect and cleared him, I slapped my forehead and spent an unpleasant hour searching a dumpster where I decided the stolen cell phone and the Big Gulp cup had ended up. The old dropsy trick.
The vertical six
Most of an officer’s observations tend to be on the horizontal plane. You watch your “6” horizontally. You train to scan back and forth, but there is a vertical “6” up and down. Watching the vertical is important because suspects have a lot of reasons for getting things down low.
To prepare for an assault or escape
Contact and cover officers are alert to lateral movements, lunges and retreats from suspects. Primed to watch for that lean, that glance, or that muscle tension, officers are ready to block, tackle, or pursue. A vertical movement may cause a momentary glitch in reaction, providing a response delay that the suspect can use to their advantage. That could be a reach for a weapon or a delay in their compliance to plan an escape.
Police officers are suspicious creatures, but many are still polite. That means that when someone drops something it may be a natural response to bend over to help them pick it up. That can take the eyes off a suspect. It can also align the officer’s face with the suspect’s knee or foot. If something falls from a suspect’s hands or clothing, leave it until it can be retrieved safely and make commands to distance the suspect from whatever it is.
To hide or destroy evidence
There are a lot of evidence items that are small enough to be hidden or mashed beneath a shoe or kicked out of sight. Delay and distraction tactics like pretending to be out of breath and leaning over or asking to tie a shoe can mask the twisting motion of a foot, or give the opportunity to press something into the ground or grass. A suspect’s reluctance to move when commanded could indicate that they fear revealing evidence underfoot or in their hand. If a suspect is ordered to sit, officers should consider choosing the place rather than having the suspect drop where they are.
A good practice, when safe to do so, is to return to the area around the contact or arrest to see what might be found on the ground, nearby trash cans, or gutters. This is especially true after foot pursuits where the suspect suddenly gives up, confident that they have distanced themselves from evidence.
Officers tend to say “Don’t move,” then ask the suspect for a movement! “Don’t move – get out of the car!” “Don’t move! Show me some ID!” Contact officers should be very intentional in demanding a cessation of all movement until you give very specific instructions so that any contrary movement alerts the contact or cover officer. This avoids the officer having to take precious milliseconds to wonder if a suspect is complying or just doing something normal like reaching for a wallet or pointing to something. This makes a vertical movement a greater sign of danger.
To distract the officer: The body drop
Anticipating compliance, or even lateral resistance, during handcuffing may not include a planned reaction to a suspect’s collapse. Whether the suspect intends to start a ground fight, feign illness, or be too unsteady to remain standing, the wrenching of the officer’s hands during a vertical drop can be painful and disorienting.
Tacticians should train for a suspect drop during handcuffing to avoid the natural response to hang on to the restraints and be pulled down by the suspect’s weight and momentum. I’ll leave it to the arrest control trainers to offer counsel on whether an officer should use their weight to prone out a suspect, or release their grip and gain tactical distance from a suspect who may now be armed with the sharp teeth of flinging handcuffs.
Feigning illness is a classic distraction technique. Maintain tactical distance and avoid immediately entering the suspect’s space to see what’s wrong with them. Securing the suspect so that they may be properly tended to if they are ill is quite justified. If more than one suspect is present, the body drop may serve to divert police attention from the confederate. Be sure that all suspects are secured before approaching the dropped suspect. Document the rationale to avoid accusations of callous disregard for an injured suspect.
Like all tactics, thinking through the “what ifs” is a great tool. Thinking about attending to threats on the vertical plane as well as the horizontal would make ol’ Pete Malloy proud.