High-risk tactical tracking
By Tracy Bowling
This first part of a two-part article discusses how sufficient training for all members of a tactical tracking team can increase the margin of safety for the handler and K-9.
The term tactical tracking is relatively new in the world of civilian police K-9 training. Increasingly, in the past couple of years, we have heard the term used to describe concepts that involve tracking with a K-9 team and cover officers in high-risk deployments. This first part of a two-part article further defines tactical tracking and discusses why it’s time to review and change current training procedures.
Tactical Tracking Explained
In contemporary use, the term tactical tracking is applied to a visual-tracking team, a K-9 tracking team, or both. In the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military established combat tracking teams that included both visual trackers and trained tracking dogs. The teams consisted of small, five-man units and a tracking dog — usually a Labrador Retriever. Those teams were used with much success during the war, but the U.S. military disbanded them when the war was over. Not until 2006 did the military again decide that combat K-9 tracking teams were needed for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. A pilot program was begun, and 15 teams were trained for deployment. Presently, a follow-up program is in place to train additional combat K-9 tracking teams.
In today’s civilian police world, the term tactical tracking usually refers to a K-9 tracking team and some cover-officer support that attempts to provide security for the team. The cover-officer support may consist of on-scene officers, SWAT, or special-response teams. Support officers rarely receive specialized training for high-risk rural tracking.
Urban Versus Rural Tracking
Although the urban or suburban tracking deployment certainly can be dangerous, the rural, woodland deployment often presents greater personal risk to the K-9 tracking team. Most departments do not have the same support officer availability in rural jurisdictions as in municipal departments. In most municipal departments, the area concentration of officers is higher, so there is greater support for K-9 tracking deployments. Adequate officer support means more effective perimeters can be maintained and more cover officers are available to accompany a K-9 tracking team. Call-response time usually is greater in rural jurisdictions, and the K-9 tracking team usually is not deployed as quickly. Assembling an adequate number of officers for perimeter duty or cover-officer duty also typically takes longer. The result is a greater opportunity for the fleeing suspect to plan and execute concealment or ambush. Finally, the wooded environment itself offers the fleeing suspect many advantages for concealment or ambush that further his escape.
A skilled K-9 tracking team always has been, and continues to be, the single most important tool that law enforcement can use to aid in the capture of a fleeing suspect in wooded or rural searches. With good perimeter or air support, a skilled K-9 tracking team can perform woodland rural tracking with a high degree of success.
The Task Has Changed
Some statistics indicate that today’s armed criminal is more prone to use deadly force against an officer than ever before. FBI statistics show general criteria only; they do not show specific task criteria as they relate to officers felon-iously killed in the line of duty.
Although no national statistics specifically relating to tracking deployments exist, we know that the incidence of K-9 officers or cover officers being wounded or killed in tracking deployments has increased in recent years. Whether that is related to the overall increase in the use of deadly force by armed criminals, or whether it is because of an increase in the number of tracking deployments (a result of the increase in the number of K-9 teams nation-wide), is difficult to ascertain. However, from our contact with several hundred K-9 officers in seminars and training classes around the country over the past few years, we have found that all those officers agree that more and more tracking deployments involve armed suspects. Increasingly, K-9 tracking deployments are very high-risk. The wooded-area tracking deployments, especially in rural areas, expose the K-9 officer to extreme danger, and an officer’s chances of surviving an encounter with a hostile, armed suspect are not good.
A hostile, armed suspect has numerous advantages in a wooded environment. First, as mentioned previously, the quarry often has the advantage of having time to plan an ambush due to the K-9 handler’s slower response time. Second, the quarry has the advantage of surprise, because he dictates when the encounter will occur. Third, the quarry has the advantage of choosing the location in which the encounter will occur. Fourth, the quarry has the advantage of numerous areas of concealment from which to initiate an ambush. Fifth, even though the quarry may not possess fire superiority, the advantages just listed often give the quarry an overall edge.
Changing Our Training
The typical K-9 tracking deployment in a rural area is identical to deployments in urban or suburban areas as far as the nature of the crimes committed. A K-9 team is called usually as a result of a suspect fleeing from a crime scene or from a pursuing officer. The offense may be low-level, or it may be a felony involving personal injury or death. Often, no information is available as to whether the suspect is armed, but sometimes a reasonable assumption can be made that the suspect is not armed. However, with few excep-tions, we should assume that the suspect is armed and deploy accordingly.
In most cases, the K-9 team will deploy with on-scene officers. In some instances, the K-9 team will deploy with a special-response team. In either scenario, the cover officers need to be trained, equipped, and prepared for the deployment.
On most tracking K-9 call-outs, on-scene officers will accompany the K-9 team. A tactical tracking deployment can be conducted using four cover officers. Departmental training procedures should ensure that enough officers receive tactical tracking training so that a sufficient number of trained shift officers can be readily assembled to accompany the K-9 team. On high-risk K-9 call-outs where the suspect is known to be armed or has com-mitted a crime in which a firearm was involved, special-response team members that have been trained in tactical tracking should be used as cover officers if possible. Those officers will have more firearm and tactics training and usually will have superior skills if armed engagement is required.
Increasing Officer Safety
Engaging a tactical tracking team does not necessarily increase the chances of a successful track and apprehension unless the team members have visual-tracking training and can assist the K-9 team with lost-track recovery procedures. The successful follow-up and contact with the quarry is still primarily dependent on the K-9 team’s skills. A tactical tracking team’s primary function is to provide team security and enable the tracking team to conduct the operation with officer safety being the foremost concern.
Tactical training of the team members dramatically lowers the risk to officers during the follow-up and on making contact with the quarry. Formation training prepares the team to move in a manner that allows team members to provide security for each other as well as for the K-9 team. Stealth and conceal-ment training allows the team to move quietly during the follow-up. Encounter action drills prepare the team for contact with the quarry or the quarry’s assault on the team.
Police administrators, K-9 handlers, and cover officers should consider the risks involved with rural, high-risk tracking deployments, determine whether their deployment procedures are the best and safest they can be, and re-examine training practices if they are not.
Tracy Bowling has trained police K-9 tracking teams for more than 35 years, has more than 450 tracking apprehensions as a tracking dog handler, and is a nationally recognized expert in train-ing police tracking dogs. He operates Ventosa Kennel in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, providing police K-9 tracking, tactical team tracking, patrol, and detection training. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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