Suspect on the run: What to watch for inside the perimeter

Editor's Note: In part two of this exclusive two-part report, PoliceOne Senior Contributor Charles Remsberg continues with expert tactical observations from pilot and trainer Jack Schonely, who has witnessed hundreds of foot pursuits from the unique perspective of an LAPD helicopter. In part one, Schonely explored five typical flight patterns of offenders running from police. Here, he reveals five of the unexpected tricks suspects are using today to defeat officers within a containment area.

“You need to be suspicious of everyone you encounter inside a perimeter, and especially of everyone trying to come out,” Schonely advises. These are the principal suspect maneuvers to stay alert for:

1. Hiding in residences. “Of course if a suspect knows someone living near where you last saw him, he may hole up there,” Schonely says. “Otherwise he may knock randomly on doors until someone answers and then force or con his way inside. If he’s just robbed some place, he may offer money for refuge. Many these days are crawling into houses through doggie doors.

“Residents who’re intruded on may be too scared to call 911, but if you’re conducting a door-to-door search or are led to a residence by K-9 and you’re observant, their nervousness, evasiveness, or body language may clue you that something’s wrong. A consent search may then tell you more. A footprint on a closet wall, for example, may suggest that you should check out the attic.

“Suspects prefer hiding in residences to hiding in bushes, provided they can get in without being seen. They feel more secure there, and so many more concealment opportunities are inside .”

2. Blending in. Creative suspects may hide in plain sight. “Cops sometimes assume the bad guy they’re after is going to hide in the deepest, darkest corner, but he may be right in front of you, trying to look like he belongs there,” Schonely says.

He tells of one suspect who picked up a hose and stood watering a yard to look like a neighborhood homeowner while searching officers rushed right past him. Another stripped off his clothes and sat on them in a hotel Jacuzzi while a search team obliviously passed him by twice.

“Inside a containment zone, everyone should be considered in play,” Schonely says. “If you see some guy pulling weeds in a yard, approach him in a friendly manner and ask him the address of the property. If he’s the suspect trying to blend in, he won’t likely be able to answer that question.”

3. Changing appearance. Schonely likes to ask officers he trains, “If you were to go into a strange area for 10 minutes and were able to break the law if necessary, could you come out looking different?” Of course they say yes—and then realize how very easy it is for a fleeing suspect to change appearance, a trend that has “increased dramatically nationwide” in recent years, Schonely says.

“It can be as simple as discarding an outer shirt or as complex as seeming to change sex,” he points out. He recalls one offender who broke into a condo within a contained area during a daylight pursuit, brutalized the young female occupant, and cut off her hair. Before going back on the street, he donned her clothes and taped her hair to his head. “Ultimately, it didn’t work. He looked too funny,” Schonely says. “But the point is, he tried, and at night he might have gotten away with it.

“Don’t make judgments based only on appearance. Clothing, hair, facial hair can all be changed easily. Even if the suspect doesn’t change anything, the description you got in the first place may be wrong. If it’s based on some officer chasing a suspect in the dark from 30 yards behind and seeing mostly the back of his head, it’s not likely to be very reliable. Race, height, weight can all be misjudged.

“It’s easy to dismiss people you think you’re not looking for. That’s why you need to check out everyone. Suspects are willing to roll the dice and hope the cops they encounter are going to be too naïve or too lazy to investigate them closely.”

4. Boldly confronting. The ballsiest ploy, Schonely says, is for suspects to directly and deliberately engage officers who are hunting for them.

When he was a young patrol officer, he and a partner were sitting surveillance on the perimeter of an area where a fleeing suspect had disappeared about dawn one morning. They saw a young man (his clothing did not match the description they’d been given) come around the corner of a house and talk briefly to a man inside at the front door. The young man then walked away, turned back to wave, and called out, “See you later, Dad!”

As he left the property, he strolled to the patrol car and chatted a bit with the two officers, asking, among other things, why they were there. “Well, I’ve gotta get to work,” he said presently, and ambled off. “We didn’t think twice about the contact,” Schonely says.

Not long after, searching officers found a sweatshirt and cap discarded under a car at the rear of the house. Questioned about the conversation at the door, the homeowner said he had no idea who the young man was. “He asked me if he could come in and use my phone, and I told him to get the hell off my property,” he explained.

Of course, the stranger turned out to be the wanted suspect. “We got taken to the cleaners,” Schonely admits. “I learned a great deal that day.

“I know dozens of cases where something like this has happened. In one case, the hunt was for a cop killer, where you’d expect everyone to be hyper-vigilant. There was a 10-block perimeter and hundreds of officers involved. But this guy ran to his girlfriend’s house in the containment zone, showered, changed clothes, and then escaped through the perimeter by talking in a friendly way with a couple of officers.

“That took some guts,” Schonely concedes. “But it was a brilliant move on his part. A subject who comes up and asks, ‘What’s going on, officer?’ like a normal citizen throws some cops off because it’s not how they expect a suspect to act.

“Yet this gambit is easy to defeat if you talk to everyone with a suspicious mind-set. Ask them, ‘Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Why are you in this area?’ In short: Be a good cop.”

A variation of direct confrontation sometimes occurs if a suspect has a cell phone with him, Schonely says. “He may call 911 and report something urgent to create a diversion or he may report a sighting of himself outside the perimeter, in hopes the police will leave and he’ll be clear to escape.

“This is becoming very common. Any call from a cell phone near or related to a search should be report as such, if the dispatcher can so identify it.”

5. Exiting in vehicles. Just as you should stop and question all pedestrians attempting to leave a containment zone, so should you investigate all vehicles trying to drive out. “If you evaluate a car based only on the driver, you may let the bad guy get away,” Schonely says. “We’ve had mothers hide sons in their trunk. We’ve had an elderly woman who found a suspect hiding in her trashcan. He sweet-talked her into driving him through the perimeter, hidden under a blanket in the backseat.

“It’s not uncommon for suspects to called friends to drive to a spot where they can run out and jump in the car. It’s important to stay alert for vehicles that start and stop down a block or circle a block repeatedly or sit blacked out in front of a closed business across from a perimeter.

“Again, the secret of success is universal suspicion and consistent contact with people who are out and about in the area you’re monitoring.”

Schonely avidly reinforces another good practice to keep in mind, once your suspect is in custody. If they’re approached with some basic rapport-building, “a certain percentage of bad guys will talk to you,” he says. “Pick their brains to see what you can learn about their tactics and what they hear on the street. The more you can understand about suspect behavior and mind-set, the better you’ll be at outsmarting them.”

Click here for more information on Jack Schonely’s training classes on foot pursuit tactics and his book Apprehending Fleeing Suspects: Suspect Tactics and Perimeter Containment.

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