Photo Dale Stockton
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Webster's Dictionary defines exigency as "A case or situation that demands prompt action or remedy; emergency or plight." While Webster's is certainly not a law enforcement tactical manual, the above definition clearly fits our needs, because when challenged with getting into a location under exigent circumstances, patrol officers must consider a number of issues.
In an exigent-circumstance entry, there are six basic areas of concern: legal, weapons handling, approach, entry, contact with suspects and the aftermath.
Today, case law in one form or another dictates that law enforcement personnel can only enter a location with a legal warrant, consent or exigent circumstances. In the latter, the issue of imminent danger to life per the U.S. Supreme Court case Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart gives police officers a legal right and obligation to act. This concept is an exception to the Fourth Amendment, and clearly refers to when officers must enter a location to save lives due to ongoing violence. Exigencies involving hot pursuit and destruction of evidence are covered in the U.S. Supreme Court cases Warden v. Hayden and United States v. Santana.
In case you didn't realize it, making an exigent-circumstances entry into a location definitely falls into the realm of a tactical response regardless whether SWAT officers or street cops are involved. Let's review some critical weapons-handling issues. Basically, you should apply the cardinal rules of firearm safety to tactical operations.
- Never assume a weapon's condition. We all should know by now the standard interpretation of this rule, but to modify it for our purposes here, it also means you should ensure a weapon is properly loaded and ready. Instructors at Gunsite preach, "Always take a loaded gun to a gunfight." In addition, when appropriate, make sure the firearm is off safe. In case you haven't heard it before, "Duh stands for dead" if your gun is not properly loaded or still on safe when you try to fire it.
- The Master Grip: Keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until you make a conscious decision to use lethal force. In a tactical response, the adrenaline dump you experience may be significant. It can only get worse if you ignore this basic rule. In a worst-case scenario, it may lead to a weapon s unintentional discharge that wounds or kills another officer or innocent civilian.
- The Laser Rule: Never allow the muzzle of your weapon to cover anything you don t intend to destroy. In an exigent-circumstances setting, observing this rule is very important. Especially in an active-shooter, immediate-response situation, with innocent, panicked civilians moving close to officers, we must exercise caution with our firearms as we search for the suspect. In some cases, it may even be wise when confronting a potential suspect who is not yet perceived as armed to cover down with the firearm adjusted slightly to the left or right of center mass. This technique will ensure an unintentional discharge will not hit someone you did not intend to use lethal force against. If the suspect does produce a weapon, you only have to shift the muzzle laterally to immediately respond.
- Be sure of your target and beyond. This final rule reflects the fact that you must shoot what you know, not what you think. This means ensuring you engage a hostile subject whose actions justify the use of lethal force.
When you approach a building s exterior, you must remember the suspect inside has a tactical advantage (looking out is a lot easier than looking in). With that in mind, using some form of ballistic protection and developing at least a tactical response or hasty plan are essential elements for an approach. As you begin to plan your approach, make looking for points of cover a priority. Before going forward, think about how you will move from one point of cover to another. As one officer moves, another should provide cover and shoot if necessary to protect fellow officers. For example, when officers move across the front of a residence trying to get to a better vantage point before entering, direct one officer to remain behind, use cover, focus on the location and prepare to respond to any suspect actions, including lethal force. This officer can then move up once the others have reached a new position from which they can now act as cover officers.
Beyond the use of cover, the overall approach should be part of a hasty plan. The overall goal of the hasty plan is to gain access, rescue any innocent citizens and deal with the suspect as necessary. This does not have to be complex. In fact, in such situations, it s better to use simple steps to solve the problem. A hasty plan does require that communication between those directly involved remains relevant and ongoing.
As part of the hasty plan, officers look for possible points of entry, keeping in mind that the most accessible door such as a front door may not be the most tactically sound (a suspect inside may intuitively recognize the same fact and anticipate officers coming in through that door). If an alternate entry point is available, seriously consider using it instead depending on the circumstances at hand.
Example: Let's say exigent circumstances require officers to quickly yet safely enter a multi-story office building and proceed to a floor several floors above them. Taking the elevator directly to that floor may not be the best option. Instead, consider riding the elevator to an alternate floor either above or below the suspect s location. You must look at related factors when weighing such a decision, such as stairwell access (e.g., are doors on each floor locked, preventing access from the stairs?), the amount of time the tactic takes and the location s size. At the very least, the responding officers should be prepared for a number of possibilities, including the need to engage a suspect as soon as the elevator doors open.
Moving through a doorway is a critical process. The path through a doorway begins with reading the door itself. If it's an exterior door, pay attention to a number of factors. Ideally, you've identified these factors and made them part of the tactical awareness before moving up to the door. They include:
- Door orientation: Does the door open in or out? Look at the hinges and doorknob, and remember that local building codes often dictate that residential doors open in and doors on commercial structures open out. In addition, in many structures (especially homes) a short wall extends from the hinge side of the door, leaving a relatively small amount of wall space between the hinges and a wall that runs perpendicular to the door. This means the majority of the room will be straight ahead and off to the side opposite the hinges.
- Door features: What's the door made of? If it's an interior door, it may be relatively easy to force open as opposed to a sturdier exterior one. Recognize that suspects can shoot through the door if they want to. Does the door include door locks, peep holes or windows either built into the door or alongside it? A glass door, such as at a business or a fast-food restaurant, offers both positive and negative aspects we can see in, but the suspect can see out.
After you've assessed the door, you can prepare to make entry. Obviously, if the door is already open, part of the problem has been solved. However, if the door is closed, take care in getting it open. First determine if the door lock is engaged. If it is, some form of forced entry will be necessary unless you can find alternative entry points.
Once the door is ready, remember that if an armed suspect is inside, opening it may draw hostile fire. Therefore, open the door from one side or the other rather than standing in front of it. Then, instead of immediately entering, wait to see what response, if any, this action draws.
When the door has been opened, consider using the tactically proven cutting-the-pie technique to visually clear as much of the interior as possible before stepping inside. If you observe suspects during this process, order them out to your location rather than going in after them because the suspect may not be alone. The one-plus-one rule of tactical work is in play here (i.e., if you think there s one suspect present, always plan for at least one additional suspect you aren't aware of). Second, you are entering the suspect s territory. Ordering a compliant suspect out which I will discuss in greater detail shortly is more tactically sound under such conditions.
If you must enter a room, use the six-step "First-Officer-Crosses Method" described on the attached PDF found at the end of the article.
If there is a suspect inside the location, at some point you will have to take him into custody. There are variations, depending on whether you've used lethal force. If so, the need to get handcuffs on the suspect is a priority, but should be done with some caution. Use a contact-and-cover approach, in which at least one officer—the cover officer—watches the suspect, ready to use force if necessary, while other officers—contact officers—move to take the suspect into custody. The contact officers may want to take some precautionary steps first, such as planning the best approach to the suspect and avoiding a route that blocks the cover officer s view and field of fire. Other proactive steps should include preparing handcuffs before going hands on, planning for extra officers to help control the suspect s arms (especially the right because most people are right-handed) and even gloving up. Before touching a suspect who is bleeding, take steps to protect yourself from bloodborne pathogens, such as HIV and Hepatitis C.
As mentioned earlier, if a compliant suspect is in a room and you order him out, give thought to the mechanics of taking him into custody. It would be best to order the suspect out to your position of strength. To do this, contact and cover remains a good solution one officer gives instructions while the other covers. In this way you define responsibilities and can avoid the confusion often created when multiple officers give possibly conflicting instructions.
The contact officer should decide how they want the suspect to exit the room: facing the officers or away, standing, on their knees, or on their stomach. When possible, I prefer for the suspects to exit crawling on their stomach for numerous reasons, starting with officer safety. A suspect on the floor does not obstruct visibility as much as one who stands or kneels. In addition, it's relatively easy to control and handcuff a suspect who is face down on the floor with their hands behind them. Finally, gun lines will be down into the floor in the suspect s direction rather than into the room, making missed shots less likely to injure an innocent person or fellow officer.
Clearly, after an exigent circumstance you will need to address additional issues, including the need to protect the crime scene, evidence collection, the care and safety of any innocent involved citizens (especially hostages), and eventually, proper documentation. I won t discuss these issues in detail, but officers should do their job professionally with a mind toward the prosecution of those responsible.
A final point focuses on care of our own. Officers facing a worst-case scenario such as the Columbine tragedy may require some form of trauma support to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. Under such circumstances, proactive police agencies should have procedures in place to take care of their personnel.
As police officers, an exigent-circumstance event can be one of the worst situations we ever face. To successfully deal with this challenge, it will take courage, common sense and good tactics. Hopefully, this article will give you at least a starting point to consider as you think about how you will respond when and if you get the call to start rolling.