Field contacts: Sifting through the layers
Always notify dispatch of your location, request backup, maintain a reactionary gap, and be conscious of your positioning in relation to the suspect
Editor’s Note: Check with your prosecutors to ensure there isn’t a conflict in criminal procedure within your jurisdiction before implementing these practices.
When it comes to initiating a field contact, an ounce of attention can mean a pound of prevention. I always jokingly tell my partners, “Anyone on foot or bicycle after midnight is grounds for reasonable suspicion.” Although that isn’t necessarily the case, it is worth some special attention to try to determine their purpose.
Field contacts can begin with a consensual conversation and lead into a significant felony arrest, or prevent a crime from ever being committed. How the contacts are initiated — and their success — is determined by the officer’s ability to converse with others, his street savvy and his knowledge of the law and how to apply it in a given circumstance.
The first layer is the consensual contact. At this level, the officer has no articulable reason to detain or even demand identification. The officer is merely curious as to the subject(s) purpose for being in a particular place and time. Without any further facts or circumstances to support even a reasonable suspicion, the subject(s) are not required to provide any information, nor are they bound to remain at the location if they so choose.
Starts Off Small (Talk)
This is where the officer’s experience and training begins to pay off. Being engaging and asking seemingly-harmless questions to put the subject at ease, will gain their trust and put them less on the defense. Start with general topics, such as the weather, sports, current events. Once the subject begins to interact, slowly begin to focus more on their purpose for being at the location.
Ask where they are coming from, going to, and purpose for being at the particular place and time — if they are meeting anyone, or who they were with when they left their last location. Hopefully, you were able to monitor some of the subject’s activity before you approached them and now their answers contradict your observations. Also by gaining information about who they are on their way to see, or who they just left, you can verify their truthfulness if it becomes necessary.
If based on your observations and the circumstances you determine that the subject is being less than honest in their responses, it may lead into the next layer of field contacts — investigative detention.
At this stage, you are starting to develop a reasonable suspicion that this person may be preparing to engage in criminal activity, is engaged in criminal activity, or has committed a criminal act and is attempting to leave the area. Depending on how much information is developed, you will determine if an arrest is to be made or the subject is released due to lack of probable cause.
Awaiting Reasonable Suspicion
During this phase, you have to pay particular attention to the totality of the circumstances and be able to articulate exactly what you saw, heard, and knew at the time of the event which brought you to your conclusions. Stick to the facts, through your training and experience you become aware of high-crime areas, the specific activities reported in these areas and the various modus operandi associated with the patterns of the criminal activity. Evaluate your observations, incorporating your training and professional experience, to establish reasonable suspicion. Professional and rationale presentations will be the influencing factor considered by the court in making their decision.
Many officers will overlook minor infractions, believing it’s not worth their time or energy. This is a poor philosophy to embrace considering the number of arrests that occur from a simple traffic stop. Many offenders are out walking the streets because they do not have the funds to possess a car, pay for gas, or they have a license violation. However, they are still carrying weapons, narcotics, and other contraband. Watch for the bicyclist, curfew violators, the pedestrians walking in the roadway — or whatever state law or ordinance violation you observe — and make contact with these individuals. It may end in a simple warning, or lead to clearing up a series of break-ins. Your situation is greatly improved when you have a violation to hang over their head in order to demand identification and compliance.
The final layer is establishing enough probable cause to make an arrest: Whether it was from establishing the subject’s identity and making a simple warrant arrest, to locating contraband from a consent search, to discovering a crime scene and establishing the subject as the offender. After all, the aim of an officer is to prevent crime, enhance the community’s sense of security and promote a positive and professional organizational image. Catching the bad guy makes it all worthwhile.
In order to get a criminal conviction, the courts require the burden of “Beyond a reasonable doubt.” Probable cause is less of a burden by requiring that the officer — based on the facts and circumstances — believed that the person to be arrested had committed or was committing the offense. Reasonable suspicion requires even less weight to sustain this lower level of restraint.
The courts recognized in Terry v. Ohio that a crime need not be committed before officers could take action. They recognized the proactive nature of the case and the government’s interests in preventing a crime before it occurred. They stated that the brief detention, and if necessary and reasonable, the pat of outer clothing, to determine if the person was armed, was less of an encroachment into the person’s liberties than a full custodial arrest.
What does all this mean for the street cop? Basically, if you can articulate a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot and that the person of your focus is a participant in this criminal activity, albeit minor in nature, you can detain that person. The detention must be reasonable in time and scope to confirm or deny your suspicions. You can also perform a pat-down of their outer clothing to determine if they are armed and/or dangerous if the circumstances merit. Further, if while performing the pat-down of outer clothing you are able to immediately recognize an item as contraband (plain feel) you can seize the item and place the subject under arrest.
Once the arrest is made the persons liberties have been taken away and a full search of their person is permissible.
Always Stay Safe
Many officers have been both assaulted and killed over the years while conducting field contacts. It is imperative that officers maintain a high level of awareness of the person and surroundings while conducting these interviews. Always notify dispatch of your location, request backup, maintain a reactionary gap, and be conscious of your positioning in relation to the suspect at all times.
Field contacts have a preventative effect on crime and if used properly can have a positive effect on community relations. By initiating field contacts of suspicious persons and sifting through the layers you can prevent a crime from occurring, gain information about individuals for subsequent investigations, or possibly make an arrest of a serious offender.
Be alert, be smart, and be safe!