Inside the Academy: Search and frisk

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - There are many reasons an officer may have to stop and search someone, their vehicle, or their home. Recruits at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy learn searching is crucial not only for their safety and the safety of the public, but it can also impact a suspect's case.

Academy instructor Eric Austermann said people find places on and in their body to conceal various items. Items seized from a suspect are generally sent to the crime lab for testing, tagged and cataloged for a possible future court case.

Austermann teaches the recruits that, by law, they must have reasonable suspicion to search someone. Reasonable suspicion may be based on a variety of circumstances.

"Those could be the time of day, the proximity of the person to a weapon, recent pattern of crime involving the weapon, maybe the person fits the description of an armed encounter that had just happened," Austermann said.

Officers are often looking for weapons, a means of escape (like handcuff keys), and drugs or drug paraphernalia.

During a practical exercise at the academy, several recruits were presented with a box of items similar to those found on suspects and told to hide as many items on their person as they could. These recruits were then paired up with fellow recruits who were tasked with finding the hidden items.

Austermann reaches the recruits the rule of "one more." If they find one item, they should assume the suspect has another item hidden.

"You're not searching somebody thinking, 'Do they have something?' You're searching somebody thinking, 'They have something, and I'm going to find it,'" said Recruit Mary Mills from Class 193.

Mills hid a dozen or so items on her person. Her partner, Recruit Octavia Hearon, was tasked with finding as many items as she could in a limited amount of time. Hearon was unable to locate a pair of handcuff keys and two syringes.

"All this stuff I already found, you're like, 'There's no way she could have more stuff on her,'" Hearon said.

Austermann explained a suspect could use the handcuff keys to escape the handcuffs and potentially harm the officer. A syringe can also harm an officer by exposing them to diseases and germs.

These kinds of encounters between police and the public can be scary for both parties and they can leave a lasting impression. Officers are unsure what potential dangers they may face while searching a person. The individual being searched, especially if they are not involved in the crime that led to the reasonable suspicion, may feel violated.

Austermann said he emphasizes to recruits that transparency is the greatest tool an officer has.

"There's no secret in this," Austermann said. "Treat people with respect and then tell them why you're stopping them. Explain to them exactly what's happening. Explain to them that they fit the description of something that just happened down the road. Explain to them exactly what`s going on. It's not just that you're being stopped because you fit the description. It's that you happen to be a block away from the robbery, and the last time the person was seen running, he was running this direction. You don't just fit the description in that you have the same hair color, you're actually wearing the exact same clothes that was reported. Those type of things."

Instructors put the recruits through various exercises and role plays to help them practice the skills they have learned in the classroom and become more confident officers.

For more on Fox 2's exclusive look inside the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy, visit www.fox2now.com/academy.