How to pat down a suspect.

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Dec. 28 2009 4:50 PM

What's the Right Way To Pat Down a Suspect?

Grab, squeeze, and pull.

TSA search. Click image to expand.
A TSA officer screens a passenger

Following the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest airlines flight, the Transportation Security Administration has imposed pat-downs on all passengers as part of the security screening process. Is there any technique to patting someone down, or do you just grope away?

There are different techniques for different situations. TSA screeners, who deal with innocent and often anxious airline travelers, use a less-invasive pat-down. Soldiers and police officers, who face significantly more risk and usually have reason to believe their targets are armed, are somewhat less delicate. When inspecting the groin or breast area, TSA instructs its employees to use only the backs of their hands. Screeners do not typically search in between a female passenger's breasts unless a metal detector has found something in the area. Fingers and palms may be used on the back, abdomen, arms, and legs (from midthigh to ankle), but even then only light pressure is applied. Screeners also must wear gloves. Of course, the protocol may change now that screeners are patting down everyone—and many passengers have complained that screeners don't follow the procedures to begin with.


The TSA pat-down doesn't have much in common with the search that soldiers or police officers conduct on suspects. In the latter, a suspect spreads his legs wider than shoulder width and places his hands on his head. Particularly dangerous targets must kneel with their ankles crossed or lie face down with arms and legs spread out. If the suspect is standing, the officer grasps the suspect's wrists with one hand and bends him slightly backward while conducting the search from behind. He places one foot between the suspect's feet and keeps the other back about 6 inches. This posture places the officer in a superior position. He then grabs the suspect's clothing at various points, pulls it away from the body, and squeezes. When searching below the waist, it is important to squat rather than bend over to maintain a positional advantage. While one officer searches, two others stand in front of the target but out of his reach. (The legal standards for when a police officer may pat down a suspect, and how thoroughly, are complicated. In general, though, the officer must reasonably suspect that the target is armed.)

Even when dealing with potentially dangerous criminals, police are expected to exercise some discretion. They should warn the suspect before touching sensitive areas. When practical, they feel around the perimeter of a woman's breasts using the side of the hand, and the outside of the thumb when searching the breast's underside so as not to suggest cupping. But if the situation warrants it, they will run their hands between a suspect's breasts, or even inside his or her undergarments in search of small blades.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at Follow him on Twitter.


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