Here's Exactly What Happens When Cops Coordinate A Manhunt

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Quora, in answer to the question,”How is a manhunt coordinated?” We have reprinted the answer with permission from its author, former police officer Justin Freeman.

Manhunts happen every day in the United States — they’re just usually not called such. Every single day a gangbanger, a drug dealer, a petty thief, or someone with warrants spots a cop and pounds sand. That cop gives chase and gets on the radio. Units in the vicinity then flood the area and, depending on the circumstances, usually 1) form a random swarming canvass or 2) establish a perimeter. Less serious threats usually get the former, more serious threats the latter.

Swarms are just that — available units saturate the area and start zipping up and down streets, spotlighting alleys, backyards, vehicle interiors, whatever, trying to spot the suspect in transit or spook them into moving into another unit’s line of sight. Perimeters are, well, just that — officers post at intersections on a perimeter defined by either the officer who contacted the suspect or a commander, based on the suspect’s last known direction of travel. A K-9 unit is then often paged in to conduct a track.

Interagency searches complicate issues somewhat. For smaller agencies, if the defined area where a suspect could be is so large that it transcends jurisdictions, the question is really, “Where do you even begin?” K-9 units can only track so far, and trails are sometimes tenuous depending on conditions. Depending on the charges the suspect is wanted for, active searches are often called off in favour of developing good intelligence and making targeted searches of family and associate residences and the like.

On a scale from 1 to 100, the typical suspect search is probably in the teens. Not that I don’t want to find the guy with the warrant for burglary, but I’m not going to monopolize the entire agency to do it, and wouldn’t be allowed to even if I wanted to.

Something like the manhunt for Christopher Dorner, though, would be in the 90s on this scale. The LAPD pulled out most of the stops there, quickly descending on any possible sighting. And while I’m sure many would say the end justified the means, I have serious issues with how that situation was handled overall — there was a lot of what looked like constitutional overstepping regarding (especially) vehicle, person and property searches, and officers were (albeit understandably) extremely twitchy regarding engagement.

Now, as for Boston, if you’re going to put it on a hundred scale, it’s probably approaching a thousand. Domestically, we haven’t seen anything quite like this, ever — as far as manhunts go, this is on par with the search for John Wilkes Booth. In case you weren’t aware, you don’t just shut down a major metropolitan area. I have no firsthand knowledge of tactics employed, but I would imagine that, given the scope and circumstances, those in charge were aware that they were making precedent.

With something that massive, basically the Feds take over, and begin dictating the operations of state and local units in addition to their own ranks. This was an all-hands operation. I will be extremely curious to know how many people they fielded during the operation, because everybody was there. Everybody. After scene clearance, I saw a federal diplomatic security agent among those leaving the area where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was taken into custody — which tells me that they essentially told most everyone with a federal badge and a gun in New England to Paul Revere themselves straight to Boston.

It’s beyond the scope of this answer to attempt to detail everything going on in the command posts, and it would be highly speculative coming from me, anyway. Suffice it to say that those digesting intelligence would be feeding it into the pipeline as scene commanders delegated areas of responsibility. Line patrol officers were typically (based on casual observation of news coverage) given perimeter duty, while federal agents and SWAT units conducted the door-to-door contacts and building searches.

Local departments would likely have been on emergency status, during which response to low priority calls (non-injury vehicle accidents, check area requests, and so on) would have been suspended — though they’d still have kept a contingent of officers available for local calls for service unrelated to the manhunt. Otherwise, on-duty officers would have been subject to movement request from federal scene commanders.

Boston was a (God in Heaven, hopefully) once in a lifetime event, and every personnel movement and command decision will be, I assure you, intensively studied from every angle in the years to come.

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