Complacency Kills

By Jim Topham

Every day in the United States correctional officers and police alike are injured and killed because of complacency in doing adequate searches. All officers can become complacent in searching individuals because it is a frequent part of any law enforcement job and if nothing ever happens to you then it just becomes a ‘routine.’ The problem is, that the one time it is ‘routine’ and you are complacent and conduct a search too quickly is the time it will bite you.

Other components of the complacency issue include the ever-growing technology in contraband detection. Products such as Metal Tech 1400, Frisker Pro, B.O.S.S., along with the general increase in metal and contraband detection equipment are an incredible asset to the corrections field, but they are only tools. They cannot replace a thorough search by a well-trained and observant officer.

I know from experience that the best training and equipment in the world does not mean that we will find everything, every time. But maybe, from time to time, we as correctional professionals need to stop and get back to the basics.

Some Examples of Complacency

February 2, 2003: The Sullivan Correctional Facility, a Maximum Security Institution in New York was locked down after it was discovered that a bullet had been fired into a library book inside the facility. Officials discovered a round hole penetrating through about 900 pages of a 3,000-page volume of ”New York Reports Annotated, 61-63,” a summary of cases decided by the state Court of Appeals. The book was taken to the state police forensic lab in Albany, where tests determined that a ”small caliber” bullet was fired into the book.

November 2002: A Hamilton County, Tenn., Jail inmate charged with making a homemade rope and trying to strangle a female jailer with it, came to court November 1, 2002 with two more sections of the rope. Inmate Dexter Harris also had a cup, a fork, a spoon and narcotics on him. All of these items were discovered after General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon ordered him searched.

May 1998: In a highly publicized case, an individual killed two Tampa, Fla., Police detectives and one Florida Highway patrolman. The killer, Frank Earl Carr, was already wanted in the shooting death of his four year-old stepson.

Carr, an ex-con, had a history of persistent violent behavior, including assaulting law enforcement officers. Since this incident, officials learned that Carr was known to habitually carry a handcuff key on a chain around his neck. This could have been discovered if officers were not complacent.

While being taken by law enforcement officers to the scene of his son’s murder to explain his actions, he was caught on videotape ‘wiggling out of his handcuffs.’ Carr was cuffed in the front (Tampa PD policy permits officer discretion regarding handcuffing). After arriving at the residence, Carr attempted to run away and was found hiding in some bushes. Later, after completing their work at the scene, the detectives brought Carr out of the residence to their vehicle still cuffed in the front. According to all reports, Carr was patted down before he was placed in custody and the cuff key around his neck, under his white T-shirt, was missed in the search.

During transport Carr got out of his cuffs again and was able to take one of the detective’s firearms, which he used to kill Tampa Homicide Detectives Rick Childers and Randy Bell. During the police chase that ensued, Carr also shot and killed Florida Highway Patrolman James Crooks with the assault rifle he retrieved from the detective’s car.

February 16, 1999: In another case, a Tulsa County, Okla., Deputy Sheriff shot and killed a knife-wielding inmate while on a transportation run.

The deputy was taking two prisoners to a state prison in western Oklahoma when one of the prisoners leapt forward from the back seat and placed a knife to the deputy’s throat. The cruiser veered off the highway and flipped on its roof. The deputy, while hanging upside down and still seated-belted in his seat, was able to draw his weapon and fire three shots killing the 19-year-old prisoner. It is believed the other inmate had no part in this incident.

Both prisoners were searched before the transport. It should be noted that the report does not say whether it was the correctional staff or the deputy who searched the prisoners.

Note: While it is not the intention of this author to, in any way, judge the officers involved in any of these incidents, I use them as a tool for the purpose of teaching others.

Back to Basics: The Search

Searches of detained and arrested individuals are a must for the safety of the transporting officers and the correctional officers taking them into custody and vise-versa. Searches should be conducted with a ‘Life vs. Death’ frame of mind.

There are components to any type of search you conduct:
1. Visual search of the entire body.
2. Proper positioning of the individual.
3. Controlling of the individual’s hands.
4. Maintaining the ability to handcuff.

Neither race, sex, religion or ethnic background should be a factor in who is searched. If you are booking an offender into your facility, searching before an inmate housing move, or there if there is a general officer safety issue, then you should conduct a search.

There are numerous ways that departments and individual officers conduct pat or frisk searches. You should refer to your agency policy and procedure on the technique to use. The basic rules however remain the same. You have to be systematic, thorough, and objective in each and every search.

A ‘pat’ or ‘frisk’ search is the most common search that officers conduct. Because this is a clothed search the search must be systematic and thorough enough to ensure a good safe search before transport. Individuals’ clothing, not to mention the human body itself, can serve as potential hiding places for weapons, drugs, and implements of escapes or contraband.

Before beginning a search, first conduct a visual search of the individual. Look for things such as, but not limited to, position of hands, bulges that resemble weapons, knifes on the belt, facial expressions and body language, long fingernails, gang colors and symbols, and anything in the immediate area that could be used as a weapon. Pay close attention to the waistline area.

If the subject has his/her hands in their pockets, purse or bag, have them turn around before you ask them to take their hands out so you can see them. If you do this without having them turn around, they could immediately produce a weapon and point it to you.

When asking the individual to turn around, have them turn to their left. The majority of people are right handed and if they begin to turn to the right this may give them just enough time, when you cannot see their right hand to draw a weapon. One thing that might clue you in to the fact that they are right-handed is that most, but not all, righted-handed people wear their watch on the left wrist.

There are numerous methods and techniques for this type of search. It does not matter if you have an offender put his or her hands out to their side, on top of the head, or behind the back, you first need to see their hands open and free of any items. When you approach the subject ‘expect the unexpected’ and control the hands immediately.

Position yourself at level 2 1/2 behind the individual and make sure that your forward leg does not go in between the suspect’s legs. Keep your forward foot back some, so if you have to react you will not become entangled with their legs. This ensures they cannot reach down and grab your leg.

If possible, during your search continue to talk to the inmate or detainee, as this will distract them.

Also, place a stationary object such as a table, bench, or dayroom furniture in front of the individual. This will reduce the avenues of escape and increase your control. Transporting officers when dropping off or picking up an individual at a holding facility or county jail, can do the same thing when taking the handcuffs off or putting them on. This will increase reaction time should the detainee become assaultive.

Before you begin an actual search, ask the individual if they ‘have any weapons, knifes, needles on their person’ or ‘any thing that is going to cut, poke, or stick’ you.

Then, visually section the body into four quadrants: upper left, upper right, lower left, and lower right. Pay particular attention to the individual’s strong side while conducting your search and consider the possibility of the offender shaving a weapon. Make sure you are systematic in that you go from top to bottom and overlap the quadrants during your search. Do the search in a grasping method. If you run your hands over the body this will increase your chances of getting cut or stuck from a ‘sharp’. Have the inmate look away from you while you are doing the search. For example, if you are looking over the right shoulder searching the upper right quadrant, have them turn their head to the left.

You have to always maintain control of the hands during the search. This will increase your advantage and safety should a weapon or some other form of contraband is found. Remember: Officer safety is first.

Keep in mind that jewelry, pens, pagers, belt buckles, and other items are being made now with the sole purpose of concealing weapons and handcuff keys. If you want some examples just pick up a copy of Smoky Mountain Knife Works catalog, just to name one, and you will see some examples of what I am talking about. You must maintain the ‘Life vs. Death’ frame of mind during a search and be objective.

For cross-gender searches, refer to your department’s policy and procedure.

Some of the most common areas that are missed on a pat search are the small of the back, under the arms, the pelvic region and under the knees.

When dropping off a prisoner or detainee at a county jail, court house, holding facility or your own institution make sure the individual has been searched and is properly restrained before entering the processing area. Do not be in a rush to take off the restraining devices because some facilities will search the individual before the restraints are removed. If you are picking up an individual for transport, make sure you search the person thoroughly before transporting even from your own facility. Do not take an officer’s word that an offender was searched previously. Remember, this is your life we are talking about. If they have belongings with them that they are taking on the transport, then search them as well and keep them out of the sight and reach of the prisoner. Monitor the individuals during the transport. We are all human and we will, and do, miss things on searches, so be prepared.

Prop Search

If you are currently still using the ‘prop positioning’ for your pat search, you may want to reconsider. It has been shown that this is a dangerous technique to use. Inmates have been filmed and observed practicing techniques to counter the prop search and disarm and kill the officer.

The prop search involves having the individual place his hands on wall, booking counter, and or trunk of a transport vehicle. The individual will be placed back from the area of support and will have their legs spread (the old ADAM-12 move).

The problem with this method is when the officer begins to search the upper quadrant, the individual can grab and trap the officer’s hand. The first natural response to this is to pull away. This brings the individual up from their bent over position and they can turn while they are being pulled up. In doing this they can use their opposite hand and grab the officers holstered weapon, baton, OC or gain control of the officer resulting in an assault. With or without practice, they can disarm, injure, and/or kill the officer.

If you currently use this technique, please keep this in mind and revisit the use of the prop search for your safety.

Ten Basic Rules

Correctional officers must keep the basic safety rules in mind when conducting a search;
1. Have a ‘Life vs. Death’ mind set.
2. Be systematic.
3. Be thorough.
4. Be objective
5. Do a visual search of the entire body.
6. Properly position the individual.
7. Control the hands.
8. Maintain the ability to handcuff.
9. Split the body into quadrants.
10. Overlap the quadrants when searching.

By keeping these 10 basic rules in mind, your searches will not become routine and it will lessen the possibility of missing a dangerous item of contraband. This may save your life.

Be Safe!

About the Author

Jim Topham is currently the Assistant Director for the Carroll County, N.H., Department of Corrections. Before accepting that position, he worked for 2 1/2 years full-time for Jaycor Tactical Systems Inc. as the East Coast Training and Sales Coordinator. He is also a former Lt. and Training Coordinator with the Merrimack County Dept. of Corrections in New Hampshire and has over 16 years of corrections and law enforcement experience. Topham can be reached at: