SIGHTING IN ON: Attic Tactics
How to breach hard-to-reach places
By Warren Wilson
I’d always thought SWAT guys wore helmets for protection against glancing bullet impacts and blunt force trauma. It turns out helmets have another use: to protect against falling light fixtures. My team was recently assigned to make our way to an attic entrance and begin negotiations with a reportedly shotgun-wielding suspect. We were able to do just that and we took the suspect into custody without incident.
But it was after the suspect was in custody that the sky fell.
There’s a tactical principle known as “plus one.” It reasons that cops should always assume there is one more suspect, in addition to any who are located, and that we should keep searching until every possible hiding spot has been checked. We needed to clear the attic and secure any weapons that may be found. And by “we” I mean a few of our younger, more svelte SWAT team members who, unlike me, have more agility than a garbage truck. In doing so, one of our guys missed a rafter and stepped through the ceiling directly above me. It was an uncomfortable reminder of the lack of ballistic protection that would have been afforded to us by the ceiling materials. If the suspect had started firing downward, team members would have been left to depend on their personal protective equipment (body armor and brain buckets) to avoid superfluous perforation. The dozen of us had equipment consisting of bunkers (ballistic shields), level IVA entry vests, multiple illumination tools, and a tactical mirror to enhance our safety. Thankfully, that callout ended only with conversation.
An attic is among the most difficult and dangerous environments an officer may have to clear. Joe or Jane Street Cop, who must handle this task with only a few officers and no heavy armor or specialized equipment, has an even more difficult task. Having been a small-town cop in the beginning of my career, I was forced into performing that duty alone or with only one backup officer on more than one occasion. It is not a recommended activity. If it must be done without heavy support, there are a few steps the patrol officer can take to enhance his/her safety during these searches.
Stop, Look, and Listen = Intel
Before even starting an attic search, conduct a quick threat assessment. What’s the probability that there is a threat up there? That’s the primary factor in determining your approach. Look for disturbed areas in the dust around the attic entry point. Take a few moments and listen. It’s difficult for a twitchy suspect to remain quiet in that environment for any length of time.
Also, consider the call that led officers to the location in the first place. If there’s reliable information indicating the presence of an armed suspect, there is no sense in entering until all available resources are in place, if even then. Time is on the side of the patient crime fighter at that point. On the other hand, if the originating call is just an alarm or open door, the attic will probably have to be cleared by whomever is available. If that’s the case and if the resources are sufficient, post an officer at the attic entry point while the rest of the residence is cleared. Then use all of the available manpower and equipment to focus on that one area. It’s too difficult and important of a task to approach haphazardly. Also, don’t neglect verbal commands before proceeding. In most police officers’ experiences, suspects rarely respond to “pretty please.” However, they occasionally surrender (or at least respond) upon the threat of “I’ll release the dog” or “tear gas.”
Obviously, if the attic is just a doorway at the top of a set of stairs, it can be approached like most other “fatal funnels.” However, many attics have ladders or rickety stairs that pull down to provide access while others are simply a hole in the ceiling. To breach the entry point, you have to make a hole. This may mean pulling the ladder or stairs down by a cord or it may mean using a broom you find in the corner to push the plywood cover out of the way. If this is one of those houses where it’s difficult to find a broom (or other cleaning utensils, for that matter), improvise.
After gaining access to the attic, the next step is illuminating the area. One method is to carefully place flashlights just past the entrance port pointing in several different directions and then using a mirror to visually clear the space. That technique has its shortcomings, since it requires a lot of flashlights that may not be available to officers at the time. It also requires a live good guy to repeatedly reach into the port and place the flashlights. We all know being in the same place more than once is bad when there’s someone on the other side of a soft barrier with bad intentions.
A young team member came up with a simple, but surprisingly effective method. He always carries glow sticks on his entry vest. Throwing them into the corners of the attic will backlight potential suspects and objects. This is done from the relative safety of the floor below without crossing the entry point with any important stuff like arms or craniums. It works well for dark, relatively uncluttered attics. Glow sticks are cheap and can be kept in the patrolman’s emergency kit for just such an occasion.
Just like a room entry, officers must clear as much as they can from outside before making entry. With practice, the telescopic mirror can be used in conjunction with a decent flashlight to visually clear most of an attic. The mirror is used to see and to reflect light in the same direction simultaneously. One might think there would be a glare in the mirror caused by the light, but there won’t be with a good quality product. Of course, rarely does the average patrolman have access to a 6-foot-long SWAT mirror. Still, there’s no excuse to skip this critical step. Salient makes a very serviceable telescopic mirror for about $30.00. This particular mirror folds down to 8 inches and expands to about 30 inches. They work well and mine is responsible for spotting at least one felon in an attic before an officer had to cross that perilous plane. Also, Asp makes a mirror accessory for one of their expandable batons and it costs less than $20.00. Telescopic mirrors have a myriad of other uses, so worthy consideration toward making the investment.
Electronic Pole Cameras
Pole cameras are an even safer option to look into places of danger like an attic. Obviously they’re more expensive than homemade devices, but they offer professional abilities and results. The camera is guided over the edge and a remote viewer gives officers a first-hand look of the camera’s perspective. Infrared capability further probes into the depths of the dark unknown. Without a light to give away an officer’s presence, stealth tactics are maintained. If the desire is to make the hidden subject aware that officers know his location, a powerful light can be attached to a standard pole camera.
Tacview’s pole camera was first developed by Sgt. George T. Gilmer, (Ret.) and is in wide use by SWAT and tactical teams throughout the United States. It is a worthwhile device that every major SWAT team should have in its arsenal of options. Smaller teams should consider one as well.
There is a narrow set of circumstances where a K-9 can be of use for this task. Some dogs can navigate those rickety pull-down steps and some can’t. Even the most talented of police pups will find challenge in negotiating a ladder, though. There is a technique known as the “Shield Lift” whereby several SWAT team members use a bunker to raise a police dog up to where he can enter the attic prior to officers. Here again, your average patrolman usually won’t have access to a shield. He/she may not even have access to a K-9. Another challenge in using this technique is getting the dog and/or suspect down after the search is complete. Still, if one does have the benefit of a dog and the means to deploy it, insert here.
The Prairie Dog
The final and least anticipated step is actually entering the attic. Have you ever seen a relaxed prairie dog? No? Well, there’s a reason for that. Hawks and coyotes play a real-life game of Whack-A-Mole for their supper. The pasture pooch has learned that situational awareness equals survival. Cops have similarly opportunistic predators. Feel free to be nervous and go slowly. Entering a doorway is best accomplished with two officers simultaneously. This tactic allows them to cover 360 degrees of the room as quickly as possible while scanning for threats. An attic completely negates that technique.
There’s no way to get two people up into this kind of environment quickly. In fact, there’s no way to get one person up there quickly. Not even the most youthful and agile of officers can do it. With my body’s ever-expanding heartland, it’s definitely not an option. What to do?
Here is one technique: As the officer moves up the ladder, he/she must slowly turn while elevating his/her pistol’s sight plains a little at a time like the threads of a screw. After that level is cleared, move to the next rung up and repeat. After reaching the surface, be aware that many attics don’t have finished floors. There’s a possibility that an officer will be able to completely clear the area visually without the need to actually walk around up there. If not, he/she must continue upward until finding some kind of footing. Hold the area until the second officer can make his/her way up. Finish clearing any previously unobservable areas as usual, without putting your foot through the plasterboard.
Now, what to do if you locate a suspect prior to completely making entry? The tendency seems to be to go up and get them. That’s what cops do. We catch bad guys. Then, there’s that whole discretion/valor thing that tends to get lost on the bravado brigade. The wise thing to do is to cover the attic entrance and call for more resources. A barricaded subject is a tactical team problem. Obviously, not every department has a SWAT team in-house. However, it is likely most departments have access to tactical support in some manner, if even that means waiting for one of the state law enforcement agencies’ teams. Hopefully, all departments already have a protocol in place to cover such a situation. It not, there’s no time like the present to develop one. How long will it take for them to respond? In this instance, it doesn’t matter. Wait.
My department trains with an excellent team from another jurisdiction. A few years ago, they were asked to search a residence for suspects on behalf of a smaller agency. Of course, they obliged and after a careful and deliberate operation, declared the residence all clear. As investigators were processing the scene, a suspect literally came out of the wall. He’d been hiding in the attic and had slid down between the studs and the plasterboard of two interior walls. Who would have thought to look there? Try as we might, sometimes, life just drops a ceiling fixture on us.
If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s the value of redundancy when it comes to officer safety. One might look at this plan and think it’s more redundant than a penguin wearing a tuxedo. That may be true, but all it takes is a little extra time. We’ve all heard the expression, “Time is money.” In this setting, time is cheap and expediency is expensive. PM
Warren Wilson is a Lieutenant with the Enid Police Department in Oklahoma. He is a former SWAT team member/leader and has been in law enforcement for 17 years.
- The author urges slow and deliberate movements when clearing an attic.
- The least anticipated step in the process is “The Prairie Dog.”
- Salient offers a folding tactical mirror for about $30 which can easily fit in a patrol officer’s duty kit.
- With practice, an officer can use the mirror to see and reflect light into obscure areas.
- Using a tactical mirror to visually clear an attic space is a crucial step.