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November 14, 2008
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Back-country tactical tracking

By David Brewer 
Senior Law Enforcement Specialist
Department of Homeland Security
Federal Law Enforcement Training Center
Office of Artesia Operations

Tracking of both animals and humans by footprints has been done since man has been walking the Earth. American frontier history tells of Apache Scouts who were enlisted by the United States military to track Geronimo in the nineteenth Century. Today a dying art has been resurrected and put into use by the military and law enforcement as well as civilian search and rescue. The United States Border Patrol has used tracking for years, successfully following some tracks as far as one hundred miles.

In recent law enforcement history, cases such as the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, Eric Rudolph and others tell of trackers coming within feet of the victim or suspect. Tracking is now being used by our military forces at war in the Middle East to locate insurgents wishing to kill and injure our troops. Domestically we have law enforcement officers not only tracking during rescue missions but locating violent suspects running from the law. This type of tracking requires new tactics to reduce the possibility of “over tracking” a suspect and getting too close to them without realizing it. This has sometimes resulted in an ambush for law enforcement officers.

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Many people are under the misconception that tracking can only be used in wide open spaces like our frontier west. Perhaps that impression is developed through television and movies. But no person can walk anywhere without leaving at least the most minuscule sign which a trained officer can follow. Often tracks are found at homicide scenes in blood or leading through grass. Suspects leave sign on sidewalks in wet or dry conditions, down alleyways, almost anywhere as they move from one location to another.

The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center Office of Artesia Operations developed a tracking course in 2005 to meet increased demand for a tracking program that could enable law enforcement officers to identify and follow sign, successfully tracking suspects down and bringing them to justice. This program was developed with input from partner organizations such as the US Forest Service, National Park Service, US Border Patrol, and the Bureau of Land Management. Since it’s inception, the Back Country Tactical Tracking Training Program has trained several hundred federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies as well as units from the Army Special Forces.

The training is one week long and conducted at a remote training site practicing skills in varied terrain. In that environment, they become aware of a stone that has been moved, a broken blade of grass, shine from a path through grass, a sudden change in direction of a track, and note transition and the effects of time on a track or sign. Student trackers begin their training program with land navigation using a compass and maps. Should emergency aid be required, the student must be able to give an exact location for air evacuation or assisting officials to respond to. As the program progresses, each student must learn sign individually then as a team member, alternating positions in that team to ensure every person knows his job. Whether searching for a lost child, an escapee or fleeing suspect, the trackers learn to identify direction of travel, weight, stride or speed of movement and even diversionary tactics.

As a team, tactics are used when a suspect is observed, or the team is surprised by a subject and caught in an ambush situation. Terrain may dictate the team formation, each team member is briefed on various formations and are able to choose which formation best fits different scenarios. The training ratio is from one to two instructors per team, ensuring there is no one who misses important indicators of sign or direction. The training culminates with the teams working together for a long tracking mission and a final exercise.

This training has resulted in some impressive and successful performances by our graduates. Some examples are: A suspect bales out of a car-jacked vehicle and is tracked to a garage where he and another suspect are found hiding from the police. This tracking was conducted in a metropolitan area. Another suspect is tracked from a burglary to a stashed vehicle and apprehended. One suspect was tracked from an arson fire to several other arsons and subsequently arrested at his home.

In another case the driver of a vehicle which had been involved in a crash was identified by his footprint on the brake pedal. Finally the case where a sexual assault victim’s story is verified by a tracker, showing where she was assaulted, fled, was caught and again assaulted. This not only identified exactly where the assault took place but proved that it was in fact an unwanted assault. In yet another case, federal agents tracked a suspect to a marijuana grow. The armed suspect was hiding from officers but because of the exactness of their tracking procedures thought the agents knew exactly where he was and surrendered.

We have a number of students who are K-9 officers and they use tracking when it is not safe to send their dog after suspects. As a former K-9 Deputy I assure you it would be helpful to understand what the dog had found, not only to verify where the suspect(s) are hiding but to identify a possible ambush situation before it is too late.

Our program is available to all police agencies whether federal, state or local and is offered at the Artesia, New Mexico facility of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Contact information can be located at the FLETC website, www.fletc.gov.




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