How 'Tactical watch-outs' can help police in woodland manhunts

I borrowed the ‘Watch Out’ concept from the wildland fire-fighting community and have adapted it to woodland manhunts and find them to be an excellent tool

Imagine the following scenario: You receive radio traffic that there is a manhunt for a murder suspect in progress. You respond, and upon arriving at the CP, you are assigned to a hasty perimeter team comprised of some officers with whom you have never worked. 

En route to your assigned area, you hear “Shots fired, officer down.” Your three-man team is close by, so you enter the woods and move up a drainage culvert to reinforce the contact team. The exact location of the fugitive and the friendlies are unknown — your quarry could be anywhere in the immediate area.  

Your heart is beating in your ears, both from the adrenaline and the climb. Your team is trying to move tactically but still cover the needed ground. Suddenly up ahead in the thicket you see a shadow move. You come to high-ready and challenge — but it's one of your own. 

Tactical Watch Outs
This situation is not a training scenario. I’ve changed a few details, but that is an actual incident which occurred during one of the many woodland manhunts I’ve studied. 

My interest in studying woodland manhunts dates back to 1998, when my friend — U.S Park Ranger Joe Kolodski, affectionately known as Joe K — was murdered and a woodland manhunt ensued. I think a lot about the search tactics and strategies we used that day. We did some great work, but like every other dynamic situation, we could have done some things better. 

I reflect and dissect the hunt as a means of constant reevaluation of the training curriculums in which I am involved — and also to remember him. 

I believe that woodland manhunts are one of the most — if not the most — high-risk types of operations that an officer will face, which is why I want to share my observations of the tactical watch-out.

I borrowed the ‘watch-out’ concept from the wildland fire-fighting community and have adapted it to woodland manhunts. Wildland fire agencies use them as a means of educating wildland firefighters to hazards that might not be easily recognized when functioning in a hostile environment. I have used them countless times in both wildland firefighting and in woodland manhunts and find them to be an excellent tool.

We will use them as a means of identifying both tactical and strategic situations that are common in woodland manhunts.

Applications of the watch -out concept vary due to the unique factors present in each operation, such as topography, weather, fugitives, team composition, command and other factors. These tactical watch-outs are designed to increase the reaction time that the team leader on the ground has to adjust formations, routes, and counter-ambush tactics. It’s merely a guide to heighten a team’s situational awareness.

Tactical Watch Out #1: Working with a Hasty Team
Hasty teams are the nature of the beast. Being proactive is second nature to police officers and in a manhunt situation, this commonly translates into going right into the woods after the suspect. Of course the decision will be based on imminent public endangerment, loss of tactical advantage, severity of the crime and many other factors. 

In the incident described above, it was a double homicide in an area with residences, businesses, and public lands that initiated the tracking operation. 

One of the training points that we strive to make when training patrol officers is to be able to — in two minutes and before entering the woods — come up with a hasty op plan. This plan should include — at  minimum — positions and responsibilities of each member, comms (including a couple of hand signals), threat assessment, and map recon.

Both the tracking team and support team in the incident described were comprised of officers from multiple agencies who worked in the same rural area. From interviews, it was determined that while several of the officers had woodland operations training in the past, none had trained together. The two minute plan is one solution for the reality of hasty teams.

Tactical Watch Out #2: Dealing with Inadequate Communications
In woodland operations, radio communications will likely be poor. 

Topography and vegetation play a crucial role in the effectiveness of communications, especially in the eastern mountains. In this particular incident, the radio comms that would have linked command and the teams were non-functioning (reason undetermined), and there was no cell coverage. Again, this reinforces the need for the hasty op plan.

There are specialized remedies for poor communications on the market, but so far they are cost prohibitive for most agencies. Therefore, texting may help, or better yet, get a hand-held radio to a high point. Anticipating obstacles and setting corrective action early in the game should be standard protocol for command. 

Tactical Watch Out #3: Working with Other Teams in the Area
The risk of blue-on-blue shootings is one of the reasons why we train “finger off the trigger.” Credit is due to the officer in the above incident for not shooting his fellow officer. I had the opportunity to walk the route at the same time of the year and visit the site where the original officer died. The forest is mixed hardwood with pockets of young white pine. It’s thick in spots, even in winter. 

Consider the situation: communications down, thick brush, officers in camo, unknown location of suspect and teams, and adrenaline pumping. Preventing another fatality is a huge salute to this officer’s performance.

We teach tracking and woodland movement as a craft. It’s not high-speed. Success is predicated on maintaining stealth, like these officers did. We use the term tactical woodsman to identify how we should function in the woods. It’s purposeful — it’s thoughtful and it’s aware.

In honor of those who have fallen, let’s look at lessons learned: encourage a hasty op plan, anticipate obstacles, and move slowly!  

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