9 considerations for police when requesting public assistance during a manhunt

Releasing a photo to the media might trigger surrender, it could backfire and turn into a hostile scenario, or it could inspire a citizen to call in the location of the suspect

There are many tense moments in a police officer’s career. Some of those moments are punctuated by the adrenalized shout, “Police! Don’t move! We have a warrant for your arrest!”  

Throughout history, law enforcement has solicited and received valuable assistance from citizens in the pursuit of wanted persons. Examples are the wanted posters as well as the FBI’s Public Enemy program from the 1930s.

While searching for a wanted suspect, the public can add thousands of eyes to your search effort. In determining when the time is right to inform the public, some important considerations should come into play.

If you want the help of the good people you serve, all you need to do is ask.
If you want the help of the good people you serve, all you need to do is ask.

1. A valid warrant

Make sure before you engage in a concerted search for a suspect, there is a valid warrant and that the person named in the warrant is indeed the same individual you are targeting.

2. Public endangerment

If the safety of the public is endangered by a particular suspect remaining at large then it is imperative to notify the public immediately.

3. Integrity of the investigation

This is often cited as a legal reason for not releasing information. Investigations often have many moving parts that can be compromised by the release of certain case-related information. For example, once a photo of a suspect in any serious crime is released, it can impair the efficacy of police line-ups that are arranged after the photo’s release. Also, when one suspect is identified it can cause others to flee.

Releasing too much information on a crime can even cause some individuals to come forward to credibly bare false witness to a crime that they did not even observe.

4. Seriousness of the crime

When a department issues a general BOLO for a suspect to the law enforcement community, the serious nature of the crime is definitely a consideration. This should also be a consideration before putting a suspect’s face on the evening news.

5. Time and place

Sometimes a recent sighting can precipitate an urgent need for a department to release information due to the time and location of the last sighting. This can happen before a warrant is issued, and even before the suspect is identified.

6. Current evidence

Releasing information about a wanted suspect will probably not be too much of a concern for the career criminal, but it can have a devastating impact on a person who has no such criminal record, especially if the suspect later turns out to be innocent.

The most famous and recent case was that of the late Richard Jewell. He was the police officer-security guard who saved many lives by discovering a backpack filled with pipe-bombs at the 1996 Olympic Park in Atlanta. He was able to give warning just minutes before the explosion and evacuate most of the people out of the area. One person was killed, but it was clear that it would have been much worse if not for his vigilance.

Sadly, the FBI reported that Jewell was a Person of Interest in the bombing. It was theorized he planted the bomb to become a hero. This release of information had a devastating impact on the life of this innocent man. A domestic terrorist was ultimately convicted of the bombing.

7. Releasing the suspect’s photo

If the hunt for a wanted suspect is progressing and you still have places to go and people to see, there may be no need to request the help of the public. This is especially true in the case where the suspect is unaware of an impending arrest and still going about their day-to-day activities. Seeing his or her face on the news may impact which steps the suspect may take next. Releasing the photo to the media might trigger surrender, it could backfire and turn into a hostile scenario, or it could inspire a neighbor, friend, good citizen or associate to call in the location of the suspect. All of these possibilities weigh on the mind of investigators trying to decide whether or not to go public.

8. Running out of options

When there is a danger to the community and your pursuit isn’t producing any leads, it may be an easy decision to ask the public to help by releasing case information.

9. Methods of releasing case information

The most basic venue for release of information is done daily at street level. After no contact at a residence, many officers will scan the neighborhood to look for the unofficial neighborhood watch representative. In every neighborhood there is at least one person who has a need to know everything. These nosy neighbors not only have an overpowering need to know, but also have a need to tell others what they know. During my career there was an occasion when one of those neighbors not only verified the wanted suspect was at home, but also taught me the secret knock to use to get him to answer the door. It worked.

Notification can be anything from your local most wanted list on your department’s website, social media messaging or a text message on systems designed for such purposes. It can also include enlisting local or even national media.

It is important to note that large rewards are unnecessary. If you want the help of the good people you serve, all you need to do is ask.

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