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I thought you did it: the importance of searching suspects well

By conducting a secondary complete search, we can minimize the impact of honest mistakes

By Greg Bogosian

This article is provided by Blauer Manufacturing and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Police1.

We’ve all been there. You take custody of a suspect, and ask the other officer or deputy if they searched them, and get a quick “yeah” in return, followed by a gentle nudging of said suspect in your direction before your coworker gets back in their cruiser to take off. Since we tend to trust each other (and with good reason, for the most part), many of us will oftentimes leave things at that – even if we’re normally pretty vigilant about making sure for ourselves that said suspect does not have weapons on them.

To give a personal example, I’ve had several instances over the years where, for whatever reason, an initial search has not yielded the fact that the individual was still armed – including once where I was told the suspect had been searched, and found a machete strapped down the middle of their back. It happens, but by conducting a secondary complete search, we can minimize the impact of honest mistakes (and, sometimes, careless mistakes) on the safety of all those who have to interact with that suspect moving forward.

This isn’t to say that the person who failed to search my huge-knife guy did so with malice. All of us, after all, have had days where we just want to get through the shift and get home. Maybe we’re tired, maybe we just had to listen to yet another nonsense policy come down the line (all encounters with grapefruit will now be documented), or maybe we think that the person doesn’t “look” like they pose a threat to us because of how they appear or how they’re acting. When we’re having days like that, it transfers into everything we do – including handing off or receiving custody of a suspect – and in those days lie some of the greatest dangers to us as law enforcement professionals.

He didn’t do anything
One of the key fallacies that many of us make as human beings is believing that we know far more than we actually do about a person or situation based upon information that we extrapolate from what we can physically see. The reasoning behind this is part of a normal process of being able to take in and interpret the world, and is based in part upon the way that we learn from past experiences to apply them to the present – a “shortcut” for your brain, if you will, so that it doesn’t have to spend energy re-interpreting what is “known” already.

To see the threat inherent in this, let’s take an example where your suspect was arrested for a non-violent crime, like shoplifting, fraud, or something else which wouldn’t ordinarily trigger the “he’s got a weapon” response. You run them on NCIC/NLETS and nothing comes back – not even a motor vehicle citation. What would your perception of that person be like after that happens? Most likely, you’d shove them into the “non-problem” category and react accordingly in how you treated them. The vast majority of the time, you’d be right, and the person would end up being the compliant individual that you’d expect them to be.

Now let’s say that that same person isn’t actually who you “think” they are based upon a lack of prior arrest record. Maybe they haven’t gotten caught yet, but have actually been committing crimes for a long time and your arrest of them is the shove that starts their house of cards falling down. Perhaps they believe that all officers are evil agents of the state who must be brought down. The scenarios continue, including mentally ill individuals who are good at “pretending” that they’re normal, the person who’s just having a really bad day, or the person who’s decided that they’re not going to jail no matter what.

He’s gonna do something
All of this has one central point: there is no reasonable alternative to conducting your own search every time you accept custody of a suspect, or take someone into custody on your own. That search should be adherent to the concept of “plus one” – if you find nothing, look until you find one thing, and if you find one thing, look until you find two, etc. Not until you have comprehensively searched someone (within reason – body cavity may not be indicated unless you have a really good reason to think they’ve “keistered” something) can you say that they are not armed, and you should assume that anyone is armed until proven otherwise, regardless of what crime they have committed.

We don’t know the intent of the people we meet until we’re done dealing with them, and it’s entirely possible as a result that someone with a weapon does in fact intend to utilize it against us. And as we’ve seen recently, unfortunately, failure to search before handing off a suspect can not only result in a safety issue, but can even cause the death of a brother or sister in blue, or our compatriots in the fire and EMS services. With that kind of consequence, a good search should be seen as an investment… and not a chore.

Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS. He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike. Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from. Read more from Greg at