Why street cops should use woodland tracking tactics
Given the right conditions, you can use tracking to find or eliminate areas where a suspect may be hiding
The call came in about 0900 on a Monday in March. The requesting agency was emphatic that we come, even though it was out of our jurisdiction. We arrived to find the crime scene a short distance from the parking lot in a wooded area. One victim – the scene was gruesome. The agent in charge let us know that the dead female lying naked in the stream was likely another victim of a serial killer who was thought to be working the region.
After the briefing, my partner, Sam and I split up to look for track evidence, specifically the perpetrator’s tracks. Sam worked a large spiral search well away from the body, while I took the inside spiral. The first thing I noticed was the absence of track evidence supporting the situation report. The victim weighed more than 200 pounds and yet there was not enough disturbance — or what a tracker calls ‘sign’ — around the body.
The area was full of moss-covered rocks that would have easily showed sign of the victim being dragged. Perhaps someone carried her? Doubtful, because there would be another set of heavy tracks and a lot of moss missing from the rocks.
Working the Sign
The victim’s barefoot track was clearly visible on the soft, moist forest floor. I began to work this track away from the body, heading in a northerly direction. Once the track came out of the stream bed, it was still easy to follow. I was making good time when I came face-to-face with Sam. He had found and followed the victim’s tennis shoe tracks to a point where he found her clothes neatly piled on the ground, including her shoes. From that point, he followed her barefoot tracks to where we met.
We discussed our findings — specifically the lack of any tracks in the area other than those of the victim and the investigator. Given the excellent tracking conditions in the area and the lack of sign, we were able to conclude that the victim was the only person that had been in the area at the time of her death. We concluded that she either died from exposure or overdose.
We made our observations and conclusions known to the agent in charge. He took it with more than a little professional skepticism. The autopsy would later reveal the cause of death as hypothermia. She had escaped from a mental institution and died of exposure.
Any Cop Can Do This
You may be thinking that the tracking Sam and I did was way beyond your ability, but that is not the case. Granted, we have had decades of experience and careers where we use tracking daily, but I guarantee that you are better at tracking than you realize. I have trained thousands of officers in a variety of disciplines and have never seen a skillset that is so easily acquired. There is nothing magical or mystical about tracking.
It is merely the act of observing physical evidence to determine where someone has traveled or not traveled — nothing more. It is what you do in your investigations all of the time — you observe, gather evidence and act. The difference with tracking is that the evidence, or sign, moves you along a path to find what you are searching for.
Sometimes the tracks — sign — will not be obvious, requiring the officer to “cut for sign.” In other words, the officer should look around the crime scene in places that would lend themselves to capturing and holding tracks. Just by encouraging patrol officers to be ’track aware,’ we can greatly increase officer safety and success in suspect apprehension.
Being track aware is being cognizant of the presence of track evidence and its value. This is one of the reasons we teach a tracking course specifically designed for the patrol officer. Being first on scene, officers, if properly trained, can save lives and solve crimes.
What Can Tracking Do?
There is an old adage in the tracking world that goes something like this, “There is a story on the ground to be told and it’s the tracker’s job to tell it.” Replace tracker with patrol officer and you have put yourself into the equation. Given the right conditions, you can use tracking to find or eliminate areas where the suspect may be hiding.
Tracking can be used to determine a fleeing suspect’s direction of travel, enabling placement of the perimeter. I have dozens of cases where we reconstructed crime scenes and made convictions based solely on track evidence. Tracking can actually expand the crime scene and lead to discovery of otherwise-missed evidence. It is very helpful, as in the example above, to confirm or disprove a report or theory.
Even if you are a municipal officer, tracking will have great value. Look around the scene for places that will retain a track, like muddy areas or soft ground. Below are some areas that will be worth a look, even in a suburban or urban area.
- Around buildings or houses
- In flower beds
- Along ditches
- Any steep bank
- Dirt areas
- Sand boxes
- Dog lots
- Under the eaves of a structure
- Dirt in the street gutter
- In carpeted areas
- On paper products
If you’re tracking at night, remember to hold the flashlight at a low angle near the ground. This will create more shadow effect on the track and reveal better detail. Try to place the track between you and your light source — it will be easier to see. On hard floor surfaces such as concrete, wood, or tile, roll your light across the floor to pick up tracks.
Be “track aware” and look at the ground. Often, you will find that it has a story to tell.