We are here and we are serious.
The practice of so-called “probing techniques” in barricaded suspect operations has been around for some time in our agency and others, we just didn’t know what to call them.
In the days before telephones were in every home, old police manuals recommended tying a note to a brick and throwing it through a window. I have often wondered if the brick makers of the day sold the police black “tactical bricks” for 10 percent more than regular bricks, but that is a topic for another day. As with most good ideas, probing has withstood the test of time.
The concept made good sense at the time. It caused our team to take a good look at the way we did things. We made some changes in our handling of barricaded suspect operations. After years of success, we are now firm believers in the use of probing techniques.
Just what are probing techniques? The best description is any technique designed to get a response out of a suspect that is very low on the use of force continuum and relatively non-invasive when compared to other use-of-force options. Probing techniques are also generally far safer for SWAT officers and suspects than other options, making them a win/win in most cases.
Prior to the use of probing techniques, our team had basically three common responses to barricaded suspects. They were (in order of preference): 1) negotiations, 2) less-lethal force (usually chemical agents), and 3) stealth entry and search.
In most cases, if a suspect refused to go along with negotiators’ requests or refused to even acknowledge our presence, chemical agents were the next logical step. We call these folks “ostriches” as they seem to put their head in a hole and hope we will go away if they ignore us. If that failed, an entry and slow, deliberate search would follow.
There is nothing wrong with this concept. It worked well for us in most cases. However, if the same goal can be achieved without the problems and costs associated with chemical deployment, why not try something else first? This is where probing techniques come into play. Some suggested techniques include:
- Drive an armored vehicle to the front of the house in full view for the suspect to see.
- Pull an armored vehicle into the front yard just outside the front door and call out via loudspeaker, honk the horn, or activate the lights and siren. When possible, call out to the suspect by name.
- Detonate a distraction device outside the doors or windows.
- Launch kinetic ordinance such as bean bags or batons from a shotgun or 37/40mm launcher through windows or break them in some other manner, i.e., break & rake.
- Breach a door with a ram, vehicle mounted ram, or explosives and pull back to a position of safety, i.e., breach and hold-delay tactic.
- Introduce surveillance tools such as a pole camera, remote controlled cameras or a robot.
Which technique or techniques you choose will depend on the capabilities of your agency. However, almost any SWAT team should possess the tools to conduct several probing techniques. When taken in the order listed you will start with the lowest and least invasive technique possible and work your way up. This is the way our team does it and we have experienced incidents in which each technique has on its own caused a suspect to surrender.
At the very least they will almost always respond in some manner that at a minimum confirms their presence and intent. If you pull an appropriately armored vehicle out front and they shoot at it you have confirmed they are home, they are armed, and they are hostile, all while taking minimal risk with the lives of your people.
In one case, a felony battery suspect surrendered immediately after seeing our V-150 armored vehicle conduct a surveillance drive-by of his home, reasoning the police were serious if they brought in that type of hardware. Many have given up after figuring out police were no longer playing around once they heard distraction devices detonated directly outside their front door.
In another case, a suspect who had fired shots at his girlfriend gave up immediately after a Sage baton was fired through a window because he did not want his father’s home damaged. There are numerous other success stories, but you get the point.
These techniques are very useful at getting “ostriches” to come to the negotiations table, but they are also useful once negotiations have started. If a suspect hangs up during negotiations and refuses to answer the phone, probing techniques may get him to pick up. If he is on the phone and uncooperative, probing may get him to become more cooperative.
A problem we commonly encounter in this cell phone age is the suspect who denies being inside the home you have surrounded, but claims to be at some other undisclosed location. On several operations, a negotiator was able to hear distraction devices detonated outside or baton rounds launched through windows over the open phone line. This not only confirmed for us the suspect was inside, but it let him know we knew as well, in some cases prompting surrender.
Probing can have a very strong psychological impact on the suspect and that impact will most often benefit the police. When a suspect talks to a negotiator for long periods of time, it is often easy for him to feel as though he is in control of the situation, especially if the police appear to be taking no action.
The suspect may in some cases actually believe the police are afraid of him and this feeling of power may be something he does not want to let go of anytime soon. By using probing techniques, the suspect may begin to think the police are taking action against him, they are in control of the situation and not him, and time is running out.
If he is attempting to use time against you by barricading or making resistance / escape plans, you may interrupt his Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop with probing techniques. Instead of completing the plan he was working on, he may now feel the need to stop what he is doing and deal with the unexpected problem of the probing technique.
Pretend you are a barricaded suspect and you have been working for the past hour on a barricade for your front door while talking trash to a negotiator about the horrible things that will become of any cop who dares to mess with you and your mighty 380 ACP pistol.
Imagine now – without warning – your front door is taken off the hinges by a simple explosive breaching charge and you are left with a gaping hole in the front of your home the police can use for entry anytime they wish. You were counting on that door to protect you and keep them out. The door is now gone, and so is your hour of barricading effort. You can see bright spotlights being shined through the doorway. You hear voices and activity outside. You see an armored vehicle just outside the doorway.
How do you feel now? Are you in charge or are the police? Is time on your side or is it running out? How mighty does the little pistol feel now? Do you want to keep it in your hand or get as far away from it as possible? These psychological factors may be enough to cause the suspect to abandon his plans of resistance and surrender peacefully.
Fear of the unknown is a terrible thing. Most suspects know very little of how SWAT teams operate despite the numerous reality television shows that can serve as a learning tool for them. Most of them get their beliefs from Hollywood movies and their own misconceptions about SWAT.
Throwing a distraction device into a front yard from across the street or firing a 40mm sponge round through a window poses very little effort, risk or cost on the part of the SWAT team, but to the suspect unfamiliar with our tactics these simple actions may seem like the storming of the beaches at Normandy.
If his imagination starts to run wild on him, he may surrender peacefully for no more than the cost of a distraction device and a sponge round (about $50). This beats the costs (often in the thousands of dollars) for chemical munitions and their cleanup. It is also far less likely to result in public and media outcry or civil litigation. Since we have made a conscious effort to increase the use of probing techniques, our use of chemical agents has gone down more than 300 percent in the past five years.
Despite their value, probing techniques are not 100 percent problem-free. Impact batons fired through windows or breaching charges may injure a suspect if proper care is not taken. A suspect may become so frightened or enraged by the probing technique that negotiations stall or become very difficult.
One suspect became so enraged over the presence of our armored vehicle and what it would look like to the neighbors that it took over an hour to get him off of the topic, even after the vehicle was moved out of his sight. However, these cases are rare in comparison to the situations in which they are successful, making them worth the effort in most scenarios.
Always consult with the lead negotiator before initiating a probing technique and be sure to factor their opinion into the decision-making process. Remember this is a team effort and it is the negotiator who will have to try to repair any damage probing may have on his relationship with the suspect.
Consider the totality of the circumstances in order to determine if a probing technique is lawful or appropriate and consult with a legal expert if there is any question. Be prepared to use chemical agents or other appropriate force if probing fails.
Finally, remember the goal of a SWAT barricaded suspect response is to impose the will of the Incident Commander on the suspect, not the will of the suspect on the Incident Commander. Probing techniques are a very simple, safe, inexpensive and often effective way of initiating the offense and accomplishing that goal. They are simply another tool in the SWAT team’s kit and we have found them to be well worth the effort.
Lt. Kevin Zelt is the Commander of the Ft Wayne, Ind. Police Department Emergency Services Team (SWAT). He has been with the unit for 23 years and has been Commander for 13 years. He is a Regional Representative for the Indiana SWAT Officer’s Association and has been published in numerous publications including The Tactical Edge, LAW and ORDER and The Operator. He can be reached and Kevin.firstname.lastname@example.org.