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Common Mistakes in Building Searches

Written by Scott Oldham

Police trainers often turn a simple skill into something that it is not. In doing this, we confuse the issue to the point that some officers may not completely understand what they are supposed to be doing. The problem is twofold. We are also guilty of thinking those same critical skills are so simple that they are common sense and do not need regular refresher training. Such is the case with a standard building search, something that officers do everyday.

Searching for criminal suspects is not simple. In fact, building search and the entry into non-secured areas is one of the most intricate skills that are not routinely taught to police officers. Many agencies believe that “once learned, always learned” or that “on the job” training is sufficient to teach this skill. This is categorically not the case.

For those agencies that do teach search techniques SWAT terms such as dynamic entry, covert entry, and room clearing are used in conjunction with the building search tactics that are used by officers in the normal course of duty. In reality, none of these terms have much if anything to do with a building search.

Building Entries Defined

Dynamic entry is defined as the rapid forceful initial entry into a non-secured area or structure that is believed to contain a hostile suspect or suspects so that the officers may fully dominate the area. The best example of the use of a dynamic entry is in a narcotics raid. Most dynamic entries take place immediately following a forced breach.

Covert entry is defined as the entry by means of stealth or guile into a non-secured area believed to contain a hostile suspect. Covert entries are used to bring SWAT units into an area close to the suspect without his knowledge during the resolution of some types of high risk incidents such as hostage or barricade situations.

The two terms that are most often interchanged and confused as definitions and skills are room clearing and methodical search. When officers confuse which skill should be employed or when these skills become confused or bastardized, mistakes take place and tragedies occur.

Room clearing is the rapid seizing of multiple rooms or areas within a structure that is believed to contain a hostile suspect. This movement is designed to allow an entire structure to be taken under law enforcement control in a short period of time. Room clearing is most often initiated with a dynamic entry to assure the very quick domination of a targeted area to increase officer and suspect safety.

Methodical search is defined as the slow and thorough search of a structure for a suspect or suspects who are thought to be hiding within. The true methodical search, the kind that officers must rely upon on a day to day basis, is done in a very slow and systematic way.

Where officers begin to get into trouble with building the necessary skills, and where many trainers have confused students, is by blurring the line between two and intermixing the slow and systematic search of a structure and the rapid domination of a suspected hostile area.

Along with the confusion over these two terms, many officers believe that since a methodical search is a very slow process that it must then by process of elimination become a covert search, which is not the case; the misunderstanding of this term only serves to further confuse the issue.

It sometimes helpful to understand that a Dynamic Entry and Room Clearing operation is akin to a “Terry” pat down of a suspect while the methodical search is similar to a search of a suspect incident to their arrest. The “Terry” style dynamic entry and room clearing operation is done very quickly as it is designed to establish officer safety and dominance of a situation; the methodical search is a slower and more detailed process designed to find everything or in this case, everyone, that has been hidden. Remember, one is an entry and clearing operation, the other is the actual search.

Methodical Search

All officers, no matter what their individual job assignment, must be fully trained in the art of searching buildings. Nearly everyday officers will be called upon to enter into buildings where a suspect may be in hiding. This can be as simple as an alarm run or as dramatic as where a suspect is known to have secured himself in hiding after a crime. In either case an officer will be entering an area that is not yet under the firm control of law enforcement, so a great deal of care should be taken.

As is the case with room clearing operations the most common mistake made by officers is that of speed. Methodical search operations are done at the speed which the room or structure can be controlled and thoroughly searched. There is absolutely no need to go faster than it takes for the room to be effectively controlled and completely searched. Officers should be posted so as to cover unsecured areas of the structure while another team of officers should execute the search of individual room or area.

After the lead officer “slices the pie” so as to observe as much of the room as possible before entry, both officers will enter into the room, moving through the door and the fatal funnel without stopping.

It is imperative that the officers clear through the fatal funnel, which is a zone that exists not only outside the door but also inside the doorway, in a rapid fashion. This area is the ultimate choke point where the officers are the most vulnerable. As an instructional tool for those officers who are unfamiliar with what area the fatal funnel actually would encompass, it is easy for instructors to construct a visual representation.

Darken a room while at the same time leaving the lights on in the adjacent hallway. With the door to the room open, the fatal funnel is represented by the cone of light that spills into the room. This lighted area represents the funnel on the inside of the room. Darken the hallway and light the room to achieve a representation of the representation of the funnel on the exterior of the room. It is crucial to remember that after clearing the funnel, both officers will again slow down as time is an ally during this search operation.

Once inside the room, it is important that the officers split from one another so as not to present a single target. From here the search actually begins. In true contact/cover fashion one officer will provide cover while the second officer does the actual searching. The search should run from the floor to the ceiling and should be conducted either in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. By following a set pattern it is easy to avoid missing areas or searching in a haphazard and dangerous fashion which can lead to missing suspects that are well hidden.

Good noise and light discipline should be the carefully enforced. Although absolute noise and light discipline will be impossible, it is still wise to contain and limit the amount of both. This should be done so as to at least confuse suspects as to exactly where the officers are within the room or structure as their hiding place may not afford them a view of exactly what the officers are doing.

Once the search of the room has been conducted both officers will leave the room together entering back into the hallway and rejoining the other officers who had been covering the unsecured portions of the structure. Only then is it wise to continue to the next area to be searched. This operation will be repeated as many times as necessary until the entire structure has been searched.

The act of searching a building is a dangerous practice as the offender holds most of the advantage in this situation. Only he knows where he is hidden and only he can predict when the confrontation will occur. Officers should be well versed in the techniques for safe opening of cabinets and doors so as not to overly expose themselves to a suspect that may be hidden within. These techniques, which include the remote opening of doors by using a small cord or baton, should be thoroughly explained and demonstrated until each officer is proficient with their use.

Room Clearing

Dynamic Entry and Room Clearing are not techniques that most patrol officers will see used on a regular basis. However, it is a skill with which they should be familiar with and thoroughly trained to execute. Those officers assigned to drug taskforces, narcotics units, and SWAT teams will see this vital skill being used in a more routine fashion.

These officers should regularly receive on-going maintenance training as room clearing is a perishable skill where it is very easy to begin taking shortcuts that could eventually become lethal. At its core room clearing is the rapid domination and control of a targeted area. Room clearing is used when a team of officers enter into a building or residence in a fashion so as to quickly gain control of all individuals that are within.

Room clearing is best done in what are known as cells and groups. The most basic manpower component is a two-man cell of officers. These officers go everywhere together. Component cells can be combined with others to form groups of four or more operators for clearing operations based upon the needs of the situation. Room size and the number of persons believed to be within the room to be cleared are the two overriding factors that will determine how many officers should conduct the initial entry.

More officers can be introduced into a situation as what are known as “trailers.” These officers, who are called into the room or area by the initial entry team, will make up arrest or control teams. Should these officers be necessary they are considered “follow on forces” and not part of the initial entry and clearing team although they may be detailed to perform those functions on additional rooms that are found by the entry unit who themselves are occupied with other duties.

Manpower is one of those tricky issues where not having enough is bad, but having too much is, in some cases, worse. Manpower needs are based upon size of the room and the overall number of rooms to be cleared as well as the expected resistance that will be encountered upon entry.

If the area is a 10’ x 10’ bedroom with one man inside, room clearing is best initially a two-man operation. By the time that you place two operators inside the room with one bad guy, furniture and all of the assorted clutter that is usually underfoot inside of most crisis scenes, the ability of the operators to move around the room and not stay clustered is greatly reduced.

Contrast this with a 150’ x 200’ Grand Ballroom at the local five star hotel and the difference becomes readily apparent. In this type of setting the same two operators, even against the same lone adversary, will not be able to achieve the rapid control and domination of the area that is needed so that the maximum degree of safety (to the operator, innocents, and the suspect) can be preserved. In a room of such size more manpower is the key. In the ballroom scenario more officers will be needed to achieve the desired result in the allowable time frame.

There are several ways to actually enter and secure a room. One of the ways is best described as the military model labeled as the room domination model. In the military model, the first two officers into the room will turn to the corners and clear them first with officers three and four taking up positions in the interior of the room.

In the room domination model the roles are reversed with the first two officers entering the room and dominating the middle or interior space with officers three and four turning to the corners and clearing them. Both models have a place and while a team should predominately use one method, almost to the exclusion of the other, officers should be thoroughly trained and proficient in both. Both techniques are needed as there are structures that for reasons of design or known hazards will lend themselves better toward one tactic than the other.

Done in proper fashion the entire process of clearing rooms is a rapid flow from one room to another where officers will remain in contact with each other as they enter into room after room confronting anyone they find. The initial stage of any dynamic entry is gaining overall control of the structure. It is during this time that the individual room clearing will take place.

One of the biggest mistakes made during dynamic entry and room clearing operations is that officers will begin going at too fast of a pace. Some teams have been trained to literally run from room to room. This theory is flawed, however, as most officers cannot engage hostile targets with any degree of accuracy at that speed. Teams should only move as fast as officers can process the information that they are taking in as they wind their way throughout the structure.

As stated the initial entry into the target location is the control and domination phase. This is the time where everyone who is visible to the entry team should be confronted and controlled. Searching for persons who have hidden themselves in areas such as closets, crawlspaces, and attics is done after the known suspects are in custody and the location is firmly under the control of law enforcement.

After the structure is secure, a methodical search should begin for anyone who may have been able to hide himself during the initial entry. Here it is very important that the utmost in officer safety practices be observed. The search should begin in the area that is furthest away from the initial breach point. The theory here is that it is much more likely that individuals deeper within the structure would have had more time to secret themselves somewhere than those that were caught unaware and were confronted by the entry unit.

Departments spend a great deal of time and effort in teaching officers to shoot and keeping them proficient in those skills just as they should, but many departments spend little or no time teaching officers the proper method for searching a building. These skills are extremely perishable and should at the very least receive annual maintenance training.

It is important to remember that firearms proficiency and building search techniques are related skills but they are not the same. When discussing training it is important to remember that while one instructor may be more than perfectly adequate to conduct firearms training, that same instructor may lack the understanding to adequately teach search and control techniques.

Skills with the various building search and room clearing techniques will not only add to an officers’ proficiency but will also be an important asset in the officers’ overall survival as officers will routinely be called upon to enter into areas that are not secured so that criminal suspects can be apprehended.

Scott Oldham is a Supervisory Sergeant with the Bloomington Indiana Police Department where he serves in the Operations Division as well as being one of the Team Leaders for the department’s Tactical Unit. He can be reached at oldhams@bloomington.in.gov.


Published in Law and Order, Jan 2006

Rating : 9.3


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