Safe Searching: The Standing Basic Search

Conducting effective pat-down is an essential skill that deserves more attention in training.

Searching people in a standing position is something deputies and officers do every day across the nation. We search people in a variety of field situations and legal circumstances. But for the purpose of this article, I am going to focus on what is commonly referred to as a pat search or Terry search for weapons. As far as officer safety skills are concerned, I believe pat search techniques to be one of the most critical skills given too little emphasis in training, and therefore worthy of analysis.

4 in 5 Attacks Involve Personal Weapons

Searching people in the field for readily accessible weapons is a tactical necessity to keep us safe. It is also a high frequency activity. When analyzing the risk, it’s important to pay attention to what happens to law enforcement officers when we are attacked. According to the 2009 edition of the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 81.4 percent of the 590,507 officers assaulted in 2009 were attacked by an assailant using personal weapons (e.g. hands, fists, or feet), resulting in the highest percentage of injuries to the officers. This statistic is consistent with the FBI statistics from the previous 10 years, and therefore a fairly reliable indicator of future trends.

How does this fit within the context of a pat search? If you think about it, in order to attack an officer with personal weapons, the assailant must be close enough to strike or grapple, the same distance you are at when you search a person. So how can you protect yourself when you do your search? Use a method or technique that meets three key objectives: safe, effective, and expedient.

Related Article: How To Manage a Combative Subject

By safe, I mean that which exposes you to the minimal amount of risk. By effective, I mean that which affords the best opportunity to find what you are looking for. By expedient, I mean simple and quick, though not at the expense of safety or effectiveness. Your chosen method should facilitate not only a safe and effective search, but also other force options such as control holds, take-down techniques, and handcuffing.

Although I normally refrain from offering a “best” or “safest” technique, pat searching will be my exception. I will explain three critical components of the search technique, and why these are so important to your safety.

The Search

The technique I am presenting is referred to simply as the Standing Basic Search. Control is the primary issue in conducting a safe search. The Standing Basic Search represents the minimal level of control you are willing to establish over a person while searching him or her. Focusing on the Standing Basic Search, there are three keys to control:

  • Position the Body: Because we are innately geared toward forward movement, most aggressors, whether formally trained or not, will attack in a forward direction. Therefore, you are safer positioning yourself behind the person, rather than in front. Positioning yourself behind does not preclude a rearward attack (e.g. a rear kick, or rear elbow), but combined with the remaining two keys to control, greatly reduces a suspect’s ability to attack you effectively. Stance is also a factor in positioning. Since you search with your hands, you must be close enough to touch the areas you intend to search. In the Standing Basic Search, you will stand with your gun leg back in a balanced and bladed stance. This stance gives you the ability to create some space between your gun and the person you are searching. It also provides a platform for mobility and appropriate defensive reactions.
  • Limit the Mobility: Once you are behind the person, you want to limit his mobility. To do that, you have him widen his stance. The amount varies, because this part of the technique is also used to offset a disparity in height between a taller person and a shorter officer. Even if there is minimal height disparity, you want to have the suspect widen his stance because this adversely affects or limits his mobility. To initiate movement from a widened stance (such as lunging forward or turning around preparatory to attack) the human body will instinctively move one or both legs toward its centerline. This movement creates more time for you to perceive resistance and react appropriately. In combative situations, fractions of a second can mean the difference between an advantage and a disadvantage.
  • Control the Hands: Of the personal weapons aggressors can use to hurt you, their hands should be your greatest concern. A suspect’s hands can be used to strike, grab, choke, and manipulate weapons. Are you better off controlling one or both hands? Controlling only one hand leaves the other hand free to assault you or manipulate a weapon. Therefore, you should control both hands. One way some officers attempt to do this is to have the person place her hands on a stationary object, such as a wall or the hood of a car. However, this does not control the hands, it merely isolates them. Worse, this gives her two more points of stability and balance from which to initiate an attack.

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