Building searches: A resource and geometry problem

We must provide patrol officers with the knowledge, techniques and tactics to make building searches as safe as possible


Patrol officers are regularly called upon to search buildings. Responding to alarms, attempting to locate suspects in and around buildings, and investigating burglaries are just a few of the calls for service law enforcement officers handle that require good search techniques and tactics.

Unfortunately, most of the building search training patrol officers receive barely covers the minimum information required to make them safe and successful. Frequently, this training involves the use of unrealistic scenarios featuring multiple armed suspects and an unrealistic number of officers available to assist.

Compounding this problem, the building search training patrol officers receive frequently fails to match their working environment. In many departments, SWAT personnel are tasked with providing training to patrol officers during in-service. SWAT operators have extensive training in search techniques and tactics. However, a problem arises when SWAT instructors have unrealistic expectations about the resources available to patrol officers.

Real-world training

Officers need training that matches the reality of their operational environment. In the real world, patrol officers often find themselves searching hallways and rooms by themselves or with one other officer. This is not ideal, but the inconvenient truth is most departments are running short-staffed. We seldom have enough officers on scene to help search buildings the way we were trained.

How many officers can your agency afford to send to a residential or business alarm? Patrol rarely has all the resources needed to perform building searches like they’ve been taught. Compared to SWAT, officers working patrol have less equipment and fewer resources and yet, perform searches more often.

Many officers must clear bedrooms, small closets, bathrooms and other areas by themselves while their partners are busy covering other angles and unknown threat areas. Have we properly trained our officers to do this type of search? Or do we need to provide them with some techniques and tactics to clear these areas as safely as possible?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 93% of all law enforcement agencies in the United States have fewer than 100 officers. Even more shocking is that roughly 75% of police departments have no more than 24 officers, and nearly half of local police departments have fewer than 10 officers. This means many small departments could have a single officer on duty at a given time.

If it’s common for one or two officers to respond to an alarm, we owe it to our officers to train them in building search tactics to successfully clear a building using one or two officers. Search tactics requiring three-, four-, or five-officer teams offer limited benefit for those one or two officers clearing a residential alarm.

A geometry problem

Clint Smith, director and lead instructor at Thunder Ranch, compares building searches to a game of pool. Just like a game of pool, searching a building is a geometry problem involving angles, placement, anticipation and skill. Searching buildings and playing pool requires tactics that identify the best angles allowing players to outmaneuver their opponent.

The difference between the game of pool and patrol officers searching a building is that all the players in the game of pool have rules to follow. In the real world of searching dark, unfamiliar places, only the good guys must follow the rules.

The solution is to provide training for officers where they can experience different angles and solve realistic problems using the number of officers commonly available for a patrol call.

Look for threat cues

Officers should be trained to look for the subtle threat cues associated with a suspect being present.

Officers should use their hearing to listen for breathing patterns or the sounds of movement such as someone scraping against a wall or floor. They should use their vision to look for small signs of a suspect such as part of an elbow, the outside sole of a shoe, or a piece of clothing sticking out from a hiding spot.

We should also be training officers to use their sense of smell. If officers smell a burnt cigarette, body odor, or something out of the ordinary from the rest of the building, they should anticipate finding someone. These are all tactics and techniques our officers should use to prevail in their building searches above and beyond the fundamentals of communicating, slicing the pie and blocking.

Clearing rooms with a single officer

Patrol officers should be shown techniques to clear small rooms with a single officer. Again, it may not be ideal, but reality trumps wishful thinking when it comes to having enough people on scene. Even officers who work for large departments will find themselves in situations where they may be required to search rooms by themselves. This may include bedrooms, closets, bathrooms, sheds, pantries and other confined areas where only one officer can see and/or fit.

Additional information should be included covering how to work the angles posed by multiple doorways, hallways and staircases. Doing these things with one officer isn’t ideal, but it is the reality patrol officers face on the street.

Flashlight techniques

Building search training should cover effective ways to search using flashlights. This includes how to use light as a weapon, how to cast light into a room effectively, recognizing backlighting and the dangers associated with it, and the pitfalls associated with using too much light. Including these topics during building search training can be the difference between officers looking and seeing threat cues.

Expect to find a suspect

During my career, I instructed multiple building search training sessions and participated in hundreds of building searches on patrol. It never ceased to amaze me how surprised and startled some officers were when they found someone hiding on scene. For a solution to this mindset, I turned again to Clint Smith. Prior to making a room entry, Clint teaches telling yourself, “There is, there is, there is.” This gets you mentally prepared to find someone hiding. Once the room is cleared, you can tell yourself, “There isn’t.” But when you go to enter the next hallway or room, it’s back to “there is, there is, there is.”

We must provide patrol officers with the knowledge, techniques and tactics to make building searches as safe as possible. We know departments are running short-staffed. Now is the time to ensure officers are performing at a high level on these common, but dangerous calls for service.

NEXT: Research: Understanding suspect movement patterns while clearing a building

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