Crime scene tape has been posted around your favorite big pond or lake and nobody can get on/in the water until it has been searched. What has happened? Perhaps a body has been sighted underwater by a swimmer, or a fisherman has snagged something suspicious on his hook. A violent crime may have been committed in the area and the police are looking for discarded weapon(s). Or a report has come in to the police station about a missing person, and that missing person may have been seen in the vicinity of the water. Law enforcement is already on the case and if the crime scene tape is up, along with officers conducting an investigation, then a dive team is most likely working your formerly peaceful spot.
The USA has a great many lakes and assorted other bodies of water, both natural and man-made. Just a few examples:
Alaska: over 3,000,000 lakes (yes, 3 million)
Minnesota: 10,000 lakes (it’s even written on the license plates)
New Jersey: 366 named ponds, lakes, and lagoons
North Carolina: 78 named lakes as well as several bays, sounds, and hundreds of ponds.
Texas: over 200 large lakes and reservoirs.
When that many bodies of water are part of the landscape, it makes sense that the Sheriff’s Department (County law enforcement) and First Responders have teams that specialize in underwater evidence and body recovery. Why the Sheriff’s Department? It’s not about deep pockets financing the operations, it’s all about jurisdiction and best use of available resources. Many large lakes cross town lines, and the Sheriff’s Department has jurisdiction in all the towns in its County. No need to duplicate personnel, when prevailing thought is that one or two teams per County will be able to handle the job of underwater evidence and body recovery.
Note: the local Fire Department usually has a First Responder team on the site of any accident – they are trained for rescue. At some point, it will be determined whether it is a recovery or a rescue and/or if there is a need to preserve evidence. It’s usually a recovery rather than a rescue at a lake, because after a person spends ten minutes under the water without air, it becomes a recovery operation.
Are there enough on-the-water deaths to make certified-for-recovery dive teams necessary? Sadly, yes. The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project tracks those stats for the five biggest USA lakes. There were 99 deaths reported in 2016, 88 in 2017, and as of this writing, 47 so far in 2018 in the Great Lakes alone. North Carolina has reported 10 lake deaths so far in 2018.
Most of the time, the lake deaths are accidental, but on occasion, bodies are found because of a homicide.
A body will float after 72 hours, and continue to float for a couple of days. After that, the naturally occurring body gas is expelled and it will sink again. Bodies are often found fairly quickly, but a body gets like jelly if it’s been in the water for a while, complicating the collection process.
Cold water will preserve a body, and warm water will cause more rapid decay, so divers must work carefully in the warmer locales. Cadaver dogs can pinpoint the location of a body to speed up the work. It’s been discovered that the longer the body is in the water, the wider the smell arc for the dogs. It’s a little like a dead fish smell, more concentrated closer to the body.
If no cadaver dogs are available, the divers swim in ever bigger arcs from the chosen starting point onshore and they work in grid patterns. If the search area is large enough, one of the onshore/on boat team members keeps a map/record of the searched areas.
In general, when working in shallow water, the investigation and recovery can be accomplished by dive teams alone. In deeper water, it will be a combination of boats and dive teams that do the search and recovery.
Most dive teams have the same equipment. They dive with aluminum scuba tanks and 3200 pounds of air will last about an hour. The basic dive suit is worn for warmth and protection – below 10 feet, it’s cold, no matter what the weather is up top. They also have hazmat suits to dive with in toxic environments.
Buoys are color-coded and are released to show when the diver(s) need help or when marking the spot.
With the smallest team of 3 people, there are:
With a team of 11 people, at any given time, there are five people in the water.
It is protocol to always keep one diver on the surface, ready to assist under water or switch places with the diver already in the water. The “tender” stays on the surface (whether in a boat or on the shore) and directs the search using a rope. The tender signals by tugs; he/she lets the rope play out, and then gives more when needed.
The “tender” not only controls the line and the search pattern, but keeps track of the air time and the clock time on a log, which becomes the official record of the diver/search activity. If there is a new diver on the team, the tender tracks to see the average air use, an important stat to have when making sure a sufficient supply of air tanks is on hand for each team member. The tender can estimate the time/air left in the tanks in use after observing the previous pattern of intake by the newbie.
After spending time in the water, the divers will be dehydrated, another thing the tender keeps track of.
Stay tuned for Part 2: “Searches.”
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at two Writers’ Police Academy events in North Carolina. Many thanks to Lee Lofland for organizing the annual events, and to the members of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department for their informative presentations.
The only interaction most people ever have with a Sheriff is if they’re watching the old “Andy Griffiths Show” on TV or are checking out a Western that features a Sheriff who has come to town to save the day. TV/Movie portrayals aside, what does a Sheriff actually do? And how do his duties differ from those of a Police Chief? Are their jobs interchangeable?
I had a chance to sit in on a training class with a Sheriff, and the differences are important.
The Police Chief
In some states, some towns are very small, have little or no crime, and have no real need for a full Police Department. Detectives have nothing to do, so the department might be disbanded for economic reasons. In that case, the Sheriff’s Department would handle whatever crime might occasionally occur.
Candidates have been known to switch from the Sheriff’s Department over to the Police Department, but have to go through the new department’s training program.
State Police have jurisdiction throughout the state.
A Sheriff’s Department has jurisdiction throughout the county.
A Police Department has jurisdiction only within the town lines (unless in active pursuit of a suspect).
If there is a fatal car crash on a state highway, the Highway Patrol handles it, but if there is a felony stop or shooting, then the county (and therefore Sheriff’s Department) handles it.
There are over 3,000 Sheriffs in the USA.
There are three states that don’t have Sheriff’s Departments: Alaska, which has no county governments; Connecticut, where Sheriffs have been replaced by Marshals; Hawaii, where Deputy Sheriffs work for the Department of Public Safety.
I did a ride-along with a Deputy Sheriff out in a remote county one hot summer evening. While we rode on the highway, he explained what he looked for in suspicious behavior of other drivers on the road, showed me how his on-board computer worked while he drove at 65 mph on the highway, kept in touch with Dispatch about a developing hostage situation in the county, and ended the night with an investigation of a possible burglary. He felt that his cases had the same variety as a Police Officer’s and he liked the wider jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department.
Spend a similar evening in a Police Officer’s car and while your tour might not take you as many miles, I would bet you might have the same experience – a proud officer explaining a job he loves.
Arrests are rarely neat and tidy, or take place with little resistance from the suspect(s). If the charge is for a misdemeanor, too many parking tickets, or a problem with overdue child support, the suspect might cooperate. But, hardly anybody actually wants to go to jail.
If a car is seen weaving across lanes on a busy road, an officer might have cause to assume that something is wrong. Drunk driver? Distracted driver swatting at a bee in the car? Texting driver? Any of these scenarios require the officer to be on the alert, but might not require an automatic call for backup. He/she is facing what is called an Unknown Risk. The officer will follow protocol and call in the plate number or use his onboard computer to research outstanding warrants and ownership of the car. If flashing the patrol car light bar gets the driver to pull over so that the officer can investigate the reason for the odd behavior, then the stop may just end with a warning or a ticket.
Sometimes suspects are caught in the act of a committing a felony and they try to make a run for it (perhaps after a bank robbery or a drug deal goes south) hoping they can lose the cops in traffic or on deserted back roads. “Suspect fleeing the scene,” may be called in if it’s witnessed, and officers in pursuit are facing a Known Risk. It becomes a High Risk situation if guns are involved. The chase can continue beyond city limits, as long as it is an active pursuit.
Once the chase ends, the officers need to control the situation as much as possible, keeping their own position and the suspect’s position clearly in mind at all times.
Safety procedures the officers might follow if warranted:
If the chase ends during the daytime, the officer will angle the patrol cars to block off streets and people for their own protection, getting as close as possible to the suspects to control the developing situation.
You give up cover if you are not positioned behind a door, so the officers will try to stay behind a car door while the scene unfolds. Bullets will pierce doors, but at least a car door will slow the bullet down. Hopefully, the officers will be wearing bulletproof vests, but even a notebook will slow down a bullet, although not by much. There are degrees of cover and there are very few times of absolute cover.
At night, the officers will create a curtain of light – that is, shine lights on the suspect’s face so that he/she can’t see the officers.
Officers in patrol cars generally carry a shotgun because it commands respect. People pretty much stop in their tracks when they hear the sound of a shotgun being racked.
It is essential to get as much information about the people inside the car as possible, before any further action is taken. If there are tinted windows in the car, the officer will try to talk the people out. If the officer can’t? Then, officers are trained to wait the suspects out. It’s usually only a matter of time before the occupants of the car will make a move.
Officers will risk the K-9s if they need to, in order to encourage the suspects to get out of the car or even to stay put.
If the officer feels the trunk needs to be investigated, he/she will have the suspect pop the trunk so that the officer maintains control.
Once the suspect gets out of the car, the officer will have him/her kneel or lie on the ground to be cuffed.
The suspect needs to be frisked before being placed in the patrol car.
The inside of a patrol car is bare bones for a reason. Suspects are often sick inside the patrol car, or even go to the bathroom in there. Yup, right in the back seat. This plain design makes it easier to hose out and also cuts down on places to hide sharp objects, etc.
Once the suspects have been cuffed and frisked, the officer places them inside the patrol car.
There were no guns in the hands of the suspects in this scenario, so the situation was handled fairly easily and was resolved in about an hour.
Please Note: none of the gals in the photos are criminals. They were attendees at the 2013 Writers’ Police Academy and were helping to re-enact a ‘Known Risk’ stop, complete with yelling and back-talk to the officers. Good sports, all! 🙂
Many thanks to the instructors at The Writers’ Police Academy (2013) and the volunteers from the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department (NC) who gave so generously of their time during their days off.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips
The re-enactment was conducted at night and demonstrated how difficult it is for anyone to see what’s happening (officers or suspects) while the action unfolds. After I took the photos, I used a photo correction app to adjust the lighting, so that you could see the positions of the people and the cars.
Compare the two versions of the same image below.
#1 (the original image) shows how dark it really was outside.
#2 was adjusted so that you can see the demo.