I was in New Jersey a couple months ago for the SWAT Evolution Expo. In addition to attending the Rick Lopez' Breaching block and trying unsuccessfully to spend a few minutes on the mats with Tony Blauer, I sat in on a class by a TTOS instructor on Tracking. One of the things he was trying to do was convince a room full of cops how valuable visual tracking or visual track interpretation could be to city law enforcement and investigators from large metropolitan agencies.
He wasn't talking about forensic podiatry or anything so complex and time consuming as comparative analysis of pronation and supination. Just recognizing how transference or a change in straddle could tell the savvy flatfoot in an alleyway Hey, your suspect didn't vanish there where the asphalt starts; he jumped up on the dumpster and monkeyed up the fire escape.
The looks he received ranged from the dubious to that indescribably improbable expression seen only upon the sudden appearance of a cross-dressing axe-murderer at a Bill O'Reilly book signing.
Here's the thing. People hear Tracking and they think Nathaniel Poe, L.T. Bonham or Walter Crowhorse. If you change it to Visual Track Interpretation or Footwear Impression Evidence they'll start envisioning Gil Grisham, Agent Gibbs or that Horatio guy that's always whipping off his sunglasses.
Yes, it's all semantics, but it would certainly help if we could come up with a tracking-related phrase that conjured up visions of John McClane, Harry Callahan or even Vic Mackey.
There are several distinct characteristics of a footprint or series of footprints that aren't going to change regardless of the tracking medium. Gas station parking lot or state park, pitch angle is going to be pitch angle. Knowing where to look for the next print or disturbance when you've lost it is just as valuable to a patrolman of the Four-Two as it is a Hood River County Sheriff's Deputy.
Take pitch angle as an example. That's the angle that the toe of a foot deviates from an imaginary centerline between the two feet (see photo above right). You've got prints leading away from a break-in at a convenience store. You know enough about tracking to know what pitch angle is, and you notice that the right foot on the partial tracks in back of the store has a very pronounced pitch angle when compared to the left. You make note of that and shoot a couple pictures of the rather less than overwhelming ground spoor with your cellphone.
An hour or so later, another unit makes contact with some juveniles a mile or so away and, as it's well after curfew, begins to write a Field Incident report. The officer talking to these sterling exemplars of modern American youth notices a couple of small fragments of broken glass stuck to one kid's shoelaces. He calls you over.
You respond. You compare the kid's shoes with the notes you took at the crime scene. Now, it's entirely possible that two kids of the same age and ethnic group would be wearing similar shoes. It's even possible that they'd be wearing the same size. But what are the chances that both of them would have a pronounced pitch angle of nearly 50 degrees? Keep in mind, I'm not talking about a precisely measured angle requiring sterile environs and a forensic degree. I'm talking about a common sense observation based on an officer's training and experience.
Would one such arrest make it worth the 3 or 4 days of training necessary to understand rudimentary tracking indicators? Would five?
How about this scenario: A municipal police agency puts out a BOLO about a Kia Sedona stolen from a residence less than half an hour previously. Their dispatchers request all available agencies assist in locating the vehicle, because there was a three-month old child in the back seat at the time of the theft. Just minutes after the initial notification, another call goes out that patrol units of the local Sheriff's Department have located the vehicle in an alley in town. Among the officers that respond to that area to help with perimeter and search work are a couple that have been trained as trackers. One of them fortuitously also has a medical background.
When the two trackers arrive, there are city cops and deputies already on scene, one of whom is holding the infant. The tracker with the medical background goes to check on the child. The other goes with a supervisor of the agency that had located the mini-van back up to the vehicle to more thoroughly clear it and the alley. Another officer secures the vehicle as a crime scene. The tracker and the supervisor return, being careful to take the exact same path back out of the alley as they took in.
Once it was clear that the infant was in good health and that other units were efficiently scouring the area for the departed crooks, the trackers go back up to the van along with a PD K9 from yet another agency and start looking for spoor. They've already taken note of the shoe patterns of the officers that had initially cleared the van and secured the infant so as to remove them from consideration. One of them pretty quickly identifies a potential suspect footprint outside the driver's door, partially obliterated by that of the first officer on scene but still clear enough that a partial sketch of the sole pattern can be made. Additional prints are located moving away from the minivan down the alley opposite the direction from which the cops had come.
The trackers figure the shoe to be about a size 10 and thinks it might belong to an older style shallow-tread shoe like a basketball shoe. They can confirm one individual fleeing the scene in that direction, but presently lose the tracks. One of them stops to see if he can pick them up again. The other goes with the K9 officer on down the alley, as the dog appears to still be on track.
Eventually the handler, his partner and the other tracker return, having come up empty handed. They join the tracker there where the footprints ended and painstakingly search the vicinity for another disturbance of any kind - after all, barring divine intervention, the suspect had to have stepped down within thirty to thirty-six inches of that last print in some direction or the other.
That or been plucked up by an airplane using a Fulton rig.
Eventually they determined that the suspect had made his way to and over a nearby fence into the back yard on the far side, then turned northwards through the yard and back onto the road near the front of the house. While in that area, attempting to determine if the suspects had been picked up by another vehicle, moved down or crossed the road, the trackers noticed other officers questioning the male and female residents of a nearby trailer.
Clueing in on some incongruities and armed with the tracking officers' sketches and interpretation of what they'd seen, officers are able to place these two subjects at the scene (despite their having traded shoes in order to confuse investigators) and though perhaps unable to initially put them in the van, they could without a doubt place one of them at the exact spot in the alley where the van had been abandoned, and from there articulate their route to a location near their residence. That is sufficient to gather additional evidence and arm them with questions for questioning.
The couple are subsequently charged with Kidnapping, Child Abuse and Theft of a Motor Vehicle; not exclusively due to tracking evidence, but certainly helped in large part. Sounds good eh? As you have undoubtedly already guessed, this incident did in fact occur, just a day or two before Halloween of this year. The agencies involved were all from the region of Tucson, AZ, and the entire thing took place within an urban area. The trackers were US Deputy Marshals of the Arizona WANTED Task Force who had just recently taken the TTOS one-week basic tracking course.
Damn good work, certainly a relief to the parent's and an excellent illustration of how Tracking can be used in the big city. Though the two trackers in question were USDMs, the application of the skill would have been the same regardless of the shape or color of their badge and shoulder patch.
The most common trackers in law enforcement today do seem to hail most frequently from an agency like the Maryland Department of Natural Resources or NPS, but this does not mean it has to stay that way. There is no reason whatsoever that squared away cops from any city you'd care to name couldn't be a competent if not an accomplished tracker, and frankly they should be.
This isn't to say everyone carrying a badge and a gun should qualify as an expert in the International Association for Identification Sub-Committee for Footwear and Tire Track Evidence. He or she should, however, know the difference between a heel strike and a toe dig, and be able to articulate it intelligently on the stand.
Andy Renko and Vincent Hanna would expect no less.