Tactical Tracker Teams
Jeff Schettler’s book “K9 Trailing: Tactical Tracking Teams” is about teamwork and it should be required reading for any K9 handler – regardless of experience – who tracks fugitives with a police dog in a rural environment or wilderness area because doing so is arguably the most dangerous job in law enforcement today and a tracking team must be prepared to safely face the challenges to be successful with the mission. A handler and police dog tracking alone or separated from a tactical support team during a high risk manhunt is a liability and no longer acceptable and “Tactical Tracking Teams” provides invaluable and practical recommendations and guidelines to minimize risk and prepare a team for a deployment. The emphasis on teamwork and the chapter on “proximity alerts” – along with the practical application realistic training recommendations - may literally save the lives of handlers or team members during searches. You may not be able to attend a training course on tactical tracking team operations with Jeff Schettler in the near future – but you can take advantage of his experience and lessons learned by reading “Tactical Tracking Teams” today.
–Sergeant Bill Lewis II (Retired)
K9 Trailing is a three part series that began with The Straightest Path, a no -nonsense, practical guide to starting a trailing dog. The second in the series was supposed to cover urban K9 Trailing deployments. However, I felt that Tactical Tracker Teams was more important and timely, primarily due to recent deaths of police K9 handlers-- and often their K9s-- during high-risk, armed fugitive manhunts. I’m going to begin Tactical Tracker Teams with three case histories outlining some of the critical components of these tragedies. Unfortunately, it often takes tragedy to shift police training paradigms. I have written TTT with only one goal in mind: to take one of the most dangerous deployments on the K9 handlers’ bat belt and make it a little less so. Notice, I say only a little less so. Tactical tracking, no matter how well prepared, is incredibly dangerous and can never be taken lightly. No matter how you slice it, tactical hunting of armed or dangerous suspects is never easy or safe. No amount of training will ever make a dangerous fugitive trail a risk-free trail. Risk is the nature of the hunter hunting for the hunted. Perhaps that is why nature has fine-tuned both the hunter’s and the prey’s senses to the extreme, while making such ventures an adrenaline rush of the umpteenth degree. It is important to keep this fact in mind when hunting man: Even though the good guys might hold the advantage in assets and numbers, the bad guys are using the same senses and instincts to beat you. The adrenaline that enables you, the hunter, to do what hunters do, also enables the hunted with the chance to get away, but also to possibly turn the tables on the hunter. The hunter can become the hunted in the blink of an eye. During the high stakes game of manhunting, small mistakes can become unacceptable tragedies. Don’t become a tragedy.
Thursday September 28th at 11:45 a.m. 1 - Polk County Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Williams and his K9 partner "DiOGi" responded to 10th Street and Wabash in Polk County, Florida, to assist Deputy Douglas Speirs after a suspect fled on foot into a wooded area from a traffic stop. Deputy Williams and Diogi tracked into the brush from the scene and began trailing the suspect deeper into the woods. The investigation revealed that Matt and Diogi were alone when they encountered the suspect. The exact sequence of events is unclear, but it appears that the suspect was lying in wait behind cover and concealment and when Diogi and Deputy Williams came within range, he opened fire, striking them both. This encounter does not appear to be accidental but was an ambush prepared in advance. Furthermore, Deputy Williams’ cover officer was not present during the initial ambush but was wounded in a later exchange of gunfire. Both Matt and Diogi were killed at the scene.
February 2nd, 20112 - Wade Williams attempted to elude capture in a swampy area near Pheil Lane in Holmes County, Florida, after the murder of his parents on January 26th, 2011. A six-man Holmes County Correctional K9 tracking team was deployed in an attempt to apprehend him. A member of the tracking team, Col. Greg Malloy, was killed in an exchange of gunfire when Williams was found. Another officer was wounded. Williams was also killed in the gun battle.
Wednesday June 29th, 20111 - Deputy Sheriff Kyle Pagerly, Burks County Sheriffs Department, Pennsylvania was shot and killed via ambush. Deputy Pagerly, along with other officers, responded to a house on Pine Swamp Road in Albany Township at about 6:30 Wednesday night to serve a warrant on 25-year-old Matthew Connor; the warrant was for burglary, criminal trespass, terrorist threats, and simple assault among other charges, stemming from a previous incident. While officers met with Conner’s family at the home, Matthew Conner fled via the back door. Deputy Pagerly with his K9 Jynx pursued Conner into the woods behind the house.
The investigation revealed that Pagerly came over a hill and encountered Conner, who rose up in full camouflage and fired on officers with an AK-47. Conner was killed at the scene. Pagerly was gravely injured and later died of his wounds. According to court documents, Conner had previously tried to provoke officers into shooting him.
Analysis and a Three Step Solution:
The single most critical factor in each of these manhunts is the simple fact that there were armed suspects ready and willing to face off with police and fight it out to the bitter end, regardless if they were killed in the process. The mindset of high-risk suspects must be met equally with a similar focus from the hunters, not necessarily with the same homicidal intent, but with the full knowledge that the encounter could prove fatal. More often than not, police K9 handlers run felony suspect trails without much thought as to what they might encounter should the subject be found. This is due to poor muscle memory training for high-risk searches. We are only as good as our training and if our training is flawed, so too is our response in times of duress. Training must include simulated responses of armed suspects in high-risk trails. We train for this situation in every other facet of police work, why not with high-risk trailing?
The second factor that must be stressed is that a K9 handler should never be alone. When handling the dog on a trail, the handler has no real ability to defend him or herself. Handlers are not tactical assets other than as a means to locate the suspect(s). Contrary to popular belief, even when handling a patrol dog with apprehension capabilities, when the dog and handler are attached by means of a trailing lead neither are capable of reacting fast enough to counter a threat. The handler is hampered by the lead in his hand while being focused on the dog’s trailing behavior, thus completely negating any possibility that he or she might draw and employ a weapon with any effectiveness. The K9 is attached to the handler who cannot even begin to move fast enough to keep up with the dog’s reaction, if there is one. In other words, the handler disables the dog as a tactical asset with the lead and, in most cases, is nothing more than a giant sea anchor. Though the dog is on point, the lead will ensure that the dog cannot take offensive or defensive action fast enough to counter a threat. The K9 will always be at a disadvantage because of the handler attached to it with a lead.
The key to reducing this disadvantage is not in equipping or training the handler in better ways, but in giving the handler a cover man who becomes the eyes, ears, and gun of the handler.
The last critical component of perhaps all three officer fatalities was that the handlers were not prepared for the threat before they encountered it. In each case they were surprised. In each case the officers were not prepared for the proximity of the subject before they encountered them. Even though it is impossible to go back and see exactly what happened from a K9 perspective, there is a very good chance that the dogs knew the suspect was close before the suspect had the opportunity to open fire. Furthermore, there is an equally good chance that the K9 manifested particular body language indicators that, if read properly, would have told the officers they were getting close, perhaps enabling them to be a little better prepared to deal with the threat. This body language is called a “Proximity Alert” and it is rarely trained for in professional Police K9 circles.
Furthermore, the average training that the K9 officers do get sets them up for failure from the onset. The average K9 handler, when running practice trails, runs the dog right into the subject or reward and rarely calls the dog out from a distance. The interest is in the bite or reward for the dog at the end and not necessarily on what the training suspect might do about the situation. If you run right into the practice suspect in training, you will run right into the real suspect on real manhunts during times of high stress. We fall back on muscle memory in such situations and if our muscle memory says, “charge in,” that is exactly what will happen. The muscle memory needs to change and tactics must be developed for high-risk manhunts by every law enforcement agency that utilizes trailing dogs to find high-risk suspects.
Tactical Tracker Teams is not meant to be the Holy Grail of Tactical Trailing. Nor is meant to override or challenge departmental general orders or methods of understanding, MOUs. TTT is meant to be a common sense primer for K9 handlers and the tactical teams that work with them. It is not rocket science to look at information and develop a good program. No two manhunts are alike and no two departments work in the same way. A manhunt is very fluid, fast paced, tactical ad libbing. There is no exact science to a manhunt because no two conditions can ever be duplicated. A savvy man-hunting team can adjust to conditions and suspect movements quickly and efficiently if they are prepared for a fight, stay a team, and read proximity alerts. Take what you like from this book, come up with a plan that works for your agency, and run with a flexible plan. Hopefully, what you learn here will help keep handlers, dogs, and team a little safer.
“Alive, a warrior is supple and flexible. In death, he becomes unbending and stiff. So too do all things which live. To become inflexible is to die.”
2 Reported by The Jackson County Floridian
3Channel 6 Action News