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Training Police Search and Rescue (SAR) Teams: Implications for Missing Persons Work 

Published onDec 09, 2021
Training Police Search and Rescue (SAR) Teams: Implications for Missing Persons Work 

Abstract:

Police search and rescue (SAR) teams are crucial players in resolving missing person cases. Resultantly, police employ a host of training for SAR members in collaboration with institutions, organizations, and groups. Such training, however, has not been studied. This warrants attention as, in a time of police legitimacy crises and austerity policing, appropriate and quality police training for effective, efficient practices is imperative. Therefore, we examined the training needs and offerings for police SAR personnel, and their impact on SAR operations and work, through thematic analysis of interviews with 52 police SAR members from 17 agencies across Canada. Findings suggest there are no homogeneous, structured, or standardized training offerings for police SAR personnel. Instead, training varies within and across agencies and regions, and between officers and roles, as it is commonly based upon anecdotal experiences and in-house developed ‘best practices.’ We discuss the implications of these findings for police SAR operations and work. 

Keywords:

Missing Persons; Police Search and Rescue; Police Training; Policing; Specialty unit; Qualitative Research

This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced version of an article accepted for publication in the Criminology & Criminal Justice, following peer review. The version of record, Ferguson, L., & Gaub, J. E. (2021). Training Police Search and Rescue (SAR) Teams: Implications for Police Missing Persons Work. Criminology & Criminal Justice, is available online at: https://doi.org/10.1177/17488958211057380. When citing, please cite the version of record.

Introduction

On Sunday, March 28, 2021, three-year-old Jude Walter Leyton was reported missing to the police in Ontario, Canada, generating substantial media and public attention (Gillis, 2021). The young age of Jude, nature of his disappearance (“took off” within a “split second”), and proximal area and terrain from where he was reported missing—a 200-acre resort in a rural area bordered by thick woods and foliage—prompted a large-scale search and rescue (SAR) operation (Crosier, 2021). This involved civilian SAR volunteers, the Ontario Search and Rescue Volunteer Association, and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) SAR team, introducing helicopters, drones, police dogs, and a diving team to the operation (Yousif, 2021; Crosier, 2021). These police efforts and community supports resulted in a successfully resolved missing toddler case and an inspiring story. After extensive recovery attempts, Jude was found in good health three days later near a beaver pond, 980 metres from the resort lodge (Mazur & Bimman, 2021).

This story highlights a successfully resolved missing person, emergency situation that ultimately results in a positive outcome due to police SAR response. However, some cases do not fare so well. Numerous persons documented missing to the police remain undiscovered, despite all police efforts to locate them in the quickest possible time and best condition. Therefore, the importance of efficacious SAR operations is evident, where, in the worst-case scenario, persons reported missing to the police can face harm, vulnerability, victimization, and even death (Newiss, 2005; LePard et al., 2015; Doyle & Barnes, 2020; Epstein, 2021; Ferguson, 2021).

Appropriate and quality training is a critical component of successfully resolving cases quickly and efficiently, which, ultimately, lessens the chances of an unfortunate outcome. Training can be a powerful facilitator of the ability to produce consistent, quality, and reliable policing services—in essence, homogenization across abilities, competencies, and processes (Larson, 1977). Decades of scholarship have pointed to the adverse outcomes of poor-quality, inadequate, or inappropriate training (e.g., Butterfield et al., 2004; Cordner & Shain, 2011; Ericson & Haggerty, 1997; Harris, 2001; Stiles et al., 1997). Stiles and colleagues (1997), for example, write that deficient training can impact low or unsatisfactory worker commitment to the organization and a misalignment between roles and practice. Within the policing context, poor training can result in officer frustration, low or no motivation to “do the job,” and/or misconduct (Stiles et al., 1997). Hence, training is an essential element of police administration with acute effects on officer performance and police operations (Cordner & Shain, 2011). In a time of significant declines in public trust towards police and increased public scrutiny (i.e., legitimacy crises; see Todak, 2017), it is critical for police to have adequate and quality training. Additionally, the rise in austerity policing places significant emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness in policing (Huey et al., 2016). Therefore, studying and evaluating police training to assess if it meets these goals is essential.

This study draws on interview data from SAR personnel in 17 police agencies across Canada to examine the role-based training offerings and needs. Our findings show inconsistent training regardless of role, despite a need and desire for a more standardized, consistent approach. We then discuss the implications of these findings, including their utility, to help map the current state of police SAR training across the various roles and identify areas for improvement.

Literature Review

Police Training

A significant number of studies focus on the importance of training in policing, generally centering on the content or method of training and instilling skills necessary for “good policing.” Some research has assessed the skills and characteristics necessary to be an effective officer. These skills include: physical (e.g., fitness standards); operational, like using a firearm or driving a vehicle; administrative, like report-writing; knowledge, such as legal understanding; and social, including a desire to help people, good communication, and empathy (Birzer & Tannehill, 2001; Palmiotto & Birzer, 2000; Werth, 2011). The “soft skills” of policing are particularly salient for departments embracing a community policing or problem-solving ethos (Werth, 2011). Ideally, police training should be delivered in a manner that “develops skills such as self-directed learning, problem-solving, decision-making, critical thinking and personal communication” (Werth, 2011; see also Birzer, 2003; Birzer & Tannehill, 2001). Training is also essential for exposing new police recruits to police traditions and norms (Birzer, 2003; Karp & Stenmark, 2011; Werth, 2011). Academy and initial field training assist officers in gaining fundamental knowledge needed to do their jobs, which is later supplemented with experience-based or craft knowledge (Cordner, 2016; Williams et al., 2019).

Police training comes in many forms. For example, higher education has long played a role in police training, particularly as a “major component in the reform of police organizations and police culture” (Wimshurst & Ransley, 2007). In some places, such as Australia, there are formal partnerships between higher education and police organizations to facilitate official police training courses with the intention of more comprehensive reform outcomes (Lee & Punch, 2004; Wimshurst & Ransley, 2007). The link between higher education and academy training is even more pronounced (Cordner, 2016; Wimshurst & Ransley, 2007). The early integration of the police academy into colleges and universities was first seen as an avenue for legitimizing and professionalizing policing, coinciding with the reform era of policing in which “progressive forces within the police and the larger society sought to reduce corruption, misconduct, and inefficiency through training, education, higher personnel standards, civil service systems, organizational centralization, and modern technology” (Cordner, 2016; Cordner & Shain, 2011). Bradley (1992, p. 149) explains that “educational expertise and educational management, married to operational police knowledge, were to be devoted to the production of courses which were rigorously and expertly designed to reproduce good policing practices of a general, specialist and managerial kind.” However, there is limited understanding of the effects of these arrangements (Williams et al., 2019).

Training for Specialized Outcomes and Assignments

In addition to initial basic training or department-wide refresher training, there are several specialized training programs. Some focus on tactics, outcomes, or public interactions, such as Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) and de-escalation training. Evaluations of CIT have been met with mixed results. Some studies found officers have better perceptions about people with mental illness, thus changing their street-level behaviors to divert people with mental illness to mental health services rather than introduce them to the criminal justice system (Bratin et al., 2018; Hassell, 2020); conversely, another study noted that CIT is unable to overcome officers’ stigma related to mental illness and thus fall short of intended outcomes (Haigh et al., 2020).

De-escalation training evaluations have found equally mixed results; a recent systematic review of the de-escalation literature found “although assessment outcomes reveal few adverse consequences and provide some confidence that de-escalation trainings lead to slight-to- moderate individual and organizational improvements, conclusions concerning the effectiveness of de-escalation training are limited by the questionable quality of almost all evaluation research designs” (Engel et al., 2020, p. 721). For example, a study of Verbal Judo administered among a Canadian agency found the training had a positive impact on simpler skills like officers identifying themselves, but no impact on more complex skills such as empathy (Giacomantonio et al., 2019). Conversely, a randomized controlled trial of de-escalation training found that officers who received the training “placed greater importance on compromise, and reported more frequent use of several important tactics including compromise, knowing when to walk away, and maintaining officer safety” (White et al., 2021).

Some research has addressed other types of training—such as decision-making in use of force situations, resilience training, and procedural justice training—and has found these training programs yield positive impacts on officers, including reductions in psychological threat perceptions (iPrep use of force training), improved response to stress (resilience training), and increased officer buy-in to some dimensions of procedural justice (Andersen & Gustafsberg, 2016; Andersen et al., 2015; Skogan et al., 2015).

Many specialized units also require specific training (often called “schools,” as in “bike school”). This is a logical requirement, given that specialized units often require unique skills. For example, officers using motorcycles (generally traffic enforcement officers) need to possess exceptional concentration, observation, and risk- and self-awareness skills (Coyne, 1996). In this instance, training schools utilize complex obstacle courses to ensure officers can competently operate and maneuver the motorcycle. Bike units also commonly require specialized training schools to teach officers how to ride a bike the police way: Hopping curbs, riding up and down stairs, and proper positioning of bikes for public safety and compliance (Menton, 2008). Canine (K9) units are used for multiple purposes ranging from detection (drugs, explosives, or people) to suspect apprehension, and the training costs (for both dog and handler) are immense (Hickey & Hoffman, 2003; Mesloh, 2006). Interestingly, a study of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) commanders in North Carolina (USA) found that while entry into SWAT units generally required a minimum number of years at the department and a battery of skills tests (e.g., fitness, firearms), over half expressed need for basic SWAT training, and three quarters desired incident command, team building, and advanced SWAT training (Clark et al., 2000).

Why Care About Police Training: Policing, Professions, and Professional Training

Over the past few decades, police agencies worldwide have increasingly found themselves amid legitimacy crises (see, e.g., Todak, 2017; Wong, 2004). In the United States (US) and Canada, this is starkly connected to longstanding tensions between police and the communities they serve (White & Fradella, 2016; Epstein, 2021). In fact, eroding police legitimacy was a key motivation behind forming the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in the US (Todak, 2017). Unfortunately, police organizations are left to invest in policies and programs that boost public trust in the police (thereby increasing police legitimacy) while also managing declining budgets due to a concurrent austerity crisis. While austerity measures in policing are not a new phenomenon (den Heyer, 2014), they have been felt most recently among police agencies since the 2008 recession forced many departments to make steep cuts (Huey et al., 2016; Lumsden & Black, 2018). For example, police agencies in the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada were forced to make deep cuts while public demand for service remained high (Huey et al., 2016; Lumsden & Black, 2018). Recent cuts in the US connected to the Defund the Police movement occurred concurrently with other social changes such as rising violent crime rates and severely low police morale, of which had ripple effects across global policing systems (Nickeas et al., 2021).

Policing during concurrent legitimacy and austerity crises requires innovation and efficiency (Lumsden & Black, 2018). Policies and practices must be revisited to accommodate reduced resources. This has multifaceted implications for policing. Effective training is well-documented as a foundation for equitable, just, and efficient policing (see, e.g., Butterfield et al., 2004; Ericson & Haggerty, 1997; Epstein, 2021). Yet professional training is generally understudied, particularly in policing scholarship. This has significant implications for policing as a profession and results in inconsistent training, particularly in specialized areas of policing such as SAR.

To elaborate, police practices and policies for missing persons and SAR work have been deeply and sweepingly criticized as a result of inadequate and/or deficient training. Several investigations from Australia, the UK, the US, and Canada into these and other related matters have demonstrated that policing approaches to missing persons are outdated, insufficient, fragmented, unequal, biased, and/or unreliable, and that police face many challenges related to this work as a result (e.g., Clark, Warburton, & Tilse, 2009; Fyfe, Stevenson, & Woolnough, 2015; Neely, 2016; Epstein, 2021). Such concerns, for example, are noted in a recent independent review of the Toronto Police Service, Canada responses to missing person reports by Epstein (2021), which emphasizes that “systemic issues remain” due to inadequate and second-rate training (p. 68). Therefore, police training for missing persons is a widespread concern that warrants attention. This study seeks to address this matter, focusing on one component of police response to missing person cases: SAR operations and work.

The Current Study

While a substantial body of research has addressed the benefits of professional training—and various forms of police training more specifically—few studies have delved into the area of training concerning more specialized police units, particularly informal, unit-based training that promotes unit cohesion and tactical practice. Specifically, no research on police training has addressed the training needs, requirements, or offerings for SAR teams. Further, assessment of SAR training would be best organized in a role-based fashion, consistent with the role-based functions identified in Ferguson and colleagues (2021), and aligned with the variation in SAR processes and procedures. This study bridges these research areas and fills this gap by exploring the training required and offered for SAR teams across Canada. To do this, we use data from 52 semi-structured interviews of police personnel in British Columbia (BC), Manitoba, and Ontario to address the following research questions:

  1. What role-based training offerings are available to SAR personnel?

  2. What are the training needs expressed by SAR personnel, and are they being met?

  3. What are the implications on police missing persons work of the SAR training offerings?

Data and Method

Police SAR Team Roles: Study Context

A separate study (Ferguson et al., 2021) on the roles and uses of police SAR personnel discovered that the following roles exist in police SAR teams:

(1) Frontline Patrol Officers: information gatherers and Searchers when needed;

(2) Searchers: physical, boots-on-the-ground searching presence;

(3) Search Coordinators: develops and coordinates training;

(4) Search Managers: ground supervisors;

(5) Incident Commander: executive-level operational decision-maker; and

(6) Missing Persons Coordinators: provides administrative and operational support.

With the above in mind, our results are displayed according to these roles and their respective training needs and offerings. Mainly, for the purposes and scope of this study, the focus is upon the roles involved in the actual SAR team themselves instead of including all other players that may or may not be involved in this work more broadly, depending upon the missing person cases. For instance, Missing Persons Coordinators do not solely provide administrative and operational support for SAR operations but are a part of all related components regarding a missing person report. As such, the role-based training needs and offerings are explored in this study for the following roles: (1) Frontline Patrol Officers, given that they are often pulled into searches when necessary, (2) Searchers, (3) Search Coordinators, and (4) Search Managers.

Data and Sampling

Police officers with experience in SAR work (N = 52) were secured through a mixture of snowball sampling and calls for participation through social media, such as LinkedIn and Twitter. This recruitment process obtained respondents from 17 police departments across the regions of Ontario, BC, and Manitoba. Participants filled the following roles within their agencies at the time of interviewing: Searcher (n = 24), Frontline Patrol Officer (n = 16), Search Manager (n = 7), and Search Coordinator (n = 5). Only frontline patrol officers that had been involved in SAR work were included in this study. To this end, the inclusion criteria for this study were that respondents must be currently, or have been previously, police members with professional experience in police SAR work.

Data for this study derives from semi-structured face-to-face or telephone interviews. When consent was provided for audio-recording, interviews were transcribed verbatim; when participants did not provide consent for audio-recording, detailed handwritten notes were taken, then typed immediately post-interview. Interviews ranged between one and two hours and included questions surrounding their roles, functions, training needs, training practices, and service-specific policies and procedures.

Analysis

Qualitative, inductive thematic analysis of these interviews is employed in this study. Thematic analysis is a data analysis strategy that involves identifying, analyzing, and describing themes within data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This allows researchers to explore the context of the interviews at a great level of depth while allowing for flexibility and interpretation (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Thus, thematic analysis was employed here as a suitable means to explore this topic. Additionally, inductive analysis was chosen as the most appropriate as it allows for unexpected themes to be identified throughout the analysis, further building flexibility into the process (Braun & Clarke, 2006.).

Braun and Clarke’s (2006) step-by-step guide to constructing thematic analysis was undertaken. This first involved a familiarization period with the data through transcription, reading and rereading the data, and making notes about initial interpretations and potential codes. Then, initial codes were generated, and the data was collated relevant to each code in a systematic manner. Next, codes were developed into potential (“candidate”) themes, which were then reviewed by checking their fit with the entirety of the data collected. At this time, the prominent (“overarching”) themes and subthemes were named and defined. Lastly, the interviews were coded according to these finalized themes and subthemes, and this coded data was split according to the roles comprising police SAR teams.

Results

Frontline Patrol Officer Training

Training availability for Constables on patrol emerged as varying widely across and within police services. Some of the services from which we sampled—particularly smaller organizations—offered little to no in-house training on missing person cases requiring SAR for frontline officers. Instead, these cases were treated as any other call type. One of the larger municipal services offers “no real specific training” to frontline officers on SAR calls, although efforts are being made to “incorporate some training for the general members” (Officer 7001, Searcher). The reason presented for this lack of training for frontline officers was an inability to access high-quality training programs in Canada due to resources and competing duties. In both Ontario and BC, it was observed that basic search skills were taught as part of regular recruit training at the police college. Other than this, one officer remarks that “You basically learn what’s required for search and rescue once you become a police officer and do your buddy shifts, like your on-the-job training” (Officer 7011, Frontline Patrol Officer). However, more advanced police college courses for frontline officers were deemed a necessity concerning SAR work.

Other services did have training available for frontline officers, often in the form of an online, click-through training course. These courses were typically created by someone internally, most often a Search Coordinator, based upon internally determined and shared ‘best practices’ and ‘what works’ documents/scenarios, such as SAR team debriefings after resolving a missing person case. In several instances, it was discovered that these courses were not mandatory, and there was no formal requirement for refresher courses. While this may be the case, many Search Managers stated that these training courses were hosted or retaken on an annual basis, with involvement by frontline officers being voluntary if scheduling and resource availability allowed for it. Search Coordinators and Search Managers, in particular, recognized the need for more extensive training for frontline officers. As one explained, “it should be like a two- or three-day workshop that you can go on, and not just with the coordinators, but for everyone saying like ‘this is how you do a missing person file, these are the top ten factors of locating missing persons that you need to investigate right away because this is all based on research’” (Officer 5001, Search Coordinator).

That said, many officers expressed that frontline officers should have basic search skills. In one Ontario agency, efforts are made, when possible, to train patrol officers on how to conduct searches. As this Search Manager explained, “a search is an emergency. If you don’t have people that are trained in how to properly search right away, you lose super-valuable time in finding a missing person in a safe condition and they’re alive” (Officer 13001). However, participants also recognized that it would be exceedingly challenging to release officers to attend additional training—that is, over and beyond their current mandated and additional operational training—due to heavy call volumes. “There are no spare resources to release you to go train,” Officer 3001, Frontline Patrol Officer, explained, “Patrol officers, frontline, like we’re so short, that trying to get people off to do training, they can’t spare the bodies.” One solution offered to this problem was “videos or reminders to officers to make sure that they remember what the policies and procedures are and making sure that they know what they’re doing” (Officer 2002, Frontline Patrol Officer). One such video became mandatory at this officer’s agency following a high-profile incident, a theme that was common across agencies: well-known missing person cases requiring SAR response sparking internal change in training procedures and practices. This response to high-profile incidents is a common theme across policing generally; for example, many American police agencies changed use-of-force practices—particularly the use of neck restraints and chokeholds—following the death of George Floyd in 2020. These changes come on the heels of public outcry, prompting agencies to revise training or policy to repair lost legitimacy or damaged police-community relations. A third, less frequent approach entailed training all recent graduates from the provincial policing centre on basic search techniques before entering the field with their coach officer. One agency offers “one full-day to every graduating recruit Constable” (Officer 3001, Frontline Patrol Officer).

Indeed, where provincial police training colleges offered introductory courses on missing person cases requiring SAR, Search Managers and Search Coordinators identified vital aspects of the training they found lacking--primarily detailed information on risk assessments, basic case documentation skills, and how relevant provincial statutes operate. For instance, in BC and Ontario, missing person investigations, including SAR work, are primarily governed under a Missing Persons Act. A Search Coordinator, Officer 13001, in BC, felt that frontline police there could use more formalized training on the Act and the powers it sets out for officers in relation to some vital SAR operations and duties like premise or land search warrants/orders. A more complete understanding of police officers’ legislatively-mandated or provided powers would also increase police legitimacy and accountability by ensuring police are fully operating within their purview.

Searcher Training

Training for Searchers also dramatically varies. In Ontario, a police officer described Searcher training at the OPP training centre, which is based on an American text by Robert J. Koester: “We use probabilities in search as far as using [Koester’s] statistics to hopefully put all the resources in the most probable spots,” he explained, “Because we’re trying to use statistical data to say, ‘statistically, this is where they’re found’ because you can’t just start going out there and searching, you have some sort of a plan or a strategy. His training was described as research-based and based on understanding search probabilities, so even though it’s from the [US] so sometimes isn’t always applicable here, it’s still better than just our ‘best practices’ from debriefings” (Officer 1004, Search Manager). In some instances, the training received was through the National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSRS), or the Canadian National Search and Rescue Organization (NSRO) which requires Searchers to be recertified every three years. In other instances, training was offered in-house by Search Coordinators, through provincial police colleges, or, in Ontario, through courses offered at the OPP training centre. As an example, one Ontario police service hosts in-house training involving a combination of in-class sessions and field-based training. As was described, “our set course that we run for search is a week-long, and it involves roughly two, two and a half days of classroom and three days of practical [field-based training]” (Officer 11001, Searcher). Another Ontario agency similarly hosts their own in-house training because their search software is different from that used by the OPP (Officer 12001, Search Manager).

Interviewees who are provided in-house training and/or teach at one or more police training centres provided valuable details as to course content. For example, one officer who teaches a training seminar called ‘Missing Persons Searches’ advised that a necessary starting point for understanding this phenomenon and training Searchers is recognizing that it encompasses a wide variety of people, situations, behaviours, and intentions. As she explained,

I’m trying to accelerate your understanding of what we look at, and it is difficult … It usually takes us an hour to get through just a very, very precursor understanding of what those [sic] terminology means and why we make those distinctions and how we view those different areas. And [Searchers] walk away with just that rudimentary understanding of what we’re talking about. Never mind search strategy. Never mind categorization of people. Never mind profiling of individuals. They are just trying to get to the point where [Searchers] are trying to understand who it is we have to escalate the search for. (Officer 2001, Search Coordinator)

Better recognition of the types of cases that require escalation ensures more equitable and effective policing by increasing the chances SAR personnel can find a missing person in enough time to ensure the person’s safe return.

Beyond teaching differences among categories of missing persons, this agency’s in-house training also consists of the fundamentals of search strategy – “direction and distance” – which is then applied in field exercises: “We really focus on getting a bearing and understanding direction, so we use both compass and GPS. And then we use strategies in knowing distance and then time traveled and all the different strategies to address if a person goes missing. The sort of things that we need to be aware of when it talks about ground search” (Officer 2001, Search Coordinator). That being said, what emerged from across the variety of responses from Searchers was that the fundamentals of search strategy and techniques were often learned through practice, mentorship with more experienced officers (i.e., on-the-job ‘training’; ‘buddy time’), and having debriefings after searches—in essence, not through structured training, but instead through anecdotes and internally shared knowledge. Hence, training for Searchers varies depending upon an individual SAR team’s availability of people to mentor and provide this information.

Despite this, what was constant throughout the responses was that officers across all agencies sampled emphasized the importance of trained Searchers to resolving missing or lost person cases more effectively and efficiently. That is, most police SAR teams relied upon informal training and mentorship, yet most SAR personnel stressed the importance of more formalized, standardized, and structured training for Searchers. To illustrate, one Ontario-based officer illustrated this point and the implications of this as follows:

You might have an officer not trained in specific search where you say, ‘OK, I need you to walk with this three-person team down this path here’ and they’re walking down that path, literally walking, and they’re looking for people. They’re looking for a person whereas the search trained individual, they’re looking for clues, right? Like in our training, you can see someone has walked through here as the twigs are broken in that way, and that gives you direction. Now, do we know if that’s our person? Not 100% sure, but it’s a clue. Or someone leaves the hospital, and they see that the arm bracelet on the ground – it’d be very nice if they have their name on it, but maybe it’s just a piece of it without their name. And typically, the person not trained is going to walk right by, while the person trained is more prone to pick that up. (Officer 1002, Search Manager).

This speaks to the importance of training for police outcomes: Namely, the successful resolution of missing persons cases. As described by this Search Manager, ineffective training can directly lead to less efficiency, which can have dire consequences.

Search Coordinator Training

Most pertinent to understanding police SAR role-based training is the Search Coordinator as these members mainly exist to develop and coordinate the training for everyone. While such personnel are tasked with the critical duty of training SAR teams, the training for these roles themselves was less apparent. This said, training primarily stemmed from Search Coordinators who had developed their own in-house training based on ‘best practices’ from training manuals and courses offered through national organizations (e.g., the NSRS and NSRO) or textbooks and other materials developed abroad. For instance, in some agencies, the role-based training involved self-education as officers learned roles and functions for which there had not previously been training available. One officer indicated this had begun to change about four years earlier when the NSRO developed national standards. As a result, Search Coordinators and others thus have access to “two huge manuals of training” now available for the “Searcher, Team Leader, [and] Search Manager” (Officer 9002, Search Coordinator). In other words, Search Coordinators are training themselves to train other police personnel on SAR practices and procedures by relying on manuals from NSRO.

In other instances, Search Coordinators took on their position as a result of being knowledge holders from having extensive experience in police SAR work, and so established their expertise that could be shared with other SAR personnel from their own personal lessons learned or ideas of best practices, among others. Search Manager explains this:

Our Search Coordinator, he has a computer file where it’s a folder that has all of our old searches with lessons in them that are in that folder from each year… he’s had it going for I think about 3 or 4 years now. He’s been keeping track of that in that folder because what happens is with your different variety of experiences that your Search Managers have, like we have some that have only been Search Manager for a year or two and we have others who have been doing it for ten plus years like myself. So, you have a lot of different experiences to [sic] what you’ve done. So, it’s good because they can go into that file and see what was used, techniques maybe that they’ve never done before, and that makes them better at what they do. That’s why he’s our Search Coordinator. He’s in it because he just started doing that for the team, and so he took on that role, and he had a lot of experience. (Officer 1002)

For those documenting this as occurring, they revealed that the Search Coordinators’ knowledge on SAR work came first from their initial training at police colleges, which could be decades old in some agencies. Other than Search Coordinators’ self-teaching, their ‘training’ was regarded mainly as simply their own individual experiences, as well as collective team experiences, with SAR work.

Search Manager Training

The Search Manager is the overall supervisor on the ground for any SAR operations. Consequently, they must receive training in as many aspects of SAR as possible, from using basic navigational technology to documenting complex searches in fairly sophisticated software. As one officer explained, “the GPS, how to use it, how to put eight points in, how to put a mark your location, those kind [sic] of things … [and] we still use map and compass because technology does break down at times” (Officer 13001, Search Manager). Explaining further:

That map and compass is [sic] important for us to keep the skill up. In my 18 years in the unit, we very rarely have used a map and compass, but we still keep the skill up. And it’s good from a training perspective because it gives us an opportunity to orient here, out in space, where members aren’t usually used to going without any kind of technology. So, you pull out your iPhone and say, well, where am I right now? But we take those iPhones away from them, throw them out in the middle of the forest, and they’re only relying on a map and a compass to get where they need to go in the middle of the night, at dark. They’re competent in doing that. (Officer 13001, Search Manager).

In analyzing the data, we observed that both access to courses and exposure to available forms of training varied not only across provinces but also within provinces. For example, in Ontario, several agencies that use QuoVadis 7 (QV7) software for developing and managing searches send their officers to the OPP training centre for courses on search management. The courses received include a “one-week course that involves the actual search management side of it,” as well as “a second week, which is entirely the QV7 system that we use for documenting and running the searches” (Officer 1004, Search Manager). Whereas part of the QV7 training is how to use the software, it is also using “statistical information and graphing to ensure that you’ve documented precisely” all of the necessary tasks and locations (Officer 10001, Search Manager).

Regardless of the province or police service, it was noted that Search Managers typically conducted in-house field-based training in order to refresh both their own skills and those of their teams. Put another way, these SAR team members are the primary drivers of training offerings, placing responsibility arbitrarily with each individual instead of at the agency-level or provincially/nationally. This was said to occur as reviewing processes and ensuring their skills and knowledge are kept up to date allows Search Managers to more effectively handle what can be confusing, stress-filled situations: “so when it comes, and you’re in that pressure situation of like GPS’s coming in, you’re trying to mark clues, you’re trying to track your team and get it all set up” (Officer 1003, Search Manager). As this officer further explained, “you get overwhelmed very quickly when you’re by yourself as a Search Manager, trying to run the QV7, trying to send out tasks, trying to manage your people.” One police service has a Search Manager construct a missing person scenario, and that individual may deliberately throw false clues into the scenario to test both the Searchers and the Search Managers. “That’s part of the training for our Search Managers … Like, what are they going to do with this red herring?” (Officer 1005, Searcher).

For those police services that can invest in additional specialized training for Search Managers, these officers receive training in Canada and the US on topics such as Lost Person Behavior or Managing Land Search Operations (Officer 12001, Search Manager). One SAR team had recently completed training with the Canadian Air Force. “We went up to [an Ontario] Air Force Base, and we worked with the JRCC and the 424 Squadron. Those two parts of the Canadian military are SAR, so that’s when you see the helicopters searching and the C-130s” (Officer 13001, Search Manager). The opportunity was deemed invaluable: “they’re kind of the experts in Canada for SAR, especially for remote areas” (Officer 13001, Search Manager).

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to map the training offerings and needs for police SAR personnel, using interview data gathered from across three Canadian provinces and 17 agencies. Examining the processes by which SAR members have been prepared for and supported in their various roles through static and variable formal and informal training has identified training gaps between what is offered across police services and what could be improved.

First, the training offerings at the agency and provincial levels were inconsistent and haphazard. At the agency level, differences in training largely appeared to stem from one root cause: Training is often dependent on the personnel involved in SAR work at each individual agency. In other words, a lack of agency expectations and requirements resulted in fluctuations in training programming and agency priority for missing person searches and investigations. This then affects the training offered to personnel in various SAR roles. For example, Search Coordinators, tasked with developing and delivering training to agency SAR personnel, are provided no specific training themselves. Additionally, the most training is available to Searchers and Search Managers, as there is some support at both the federal and provincial levels (i.e., the NSRS). The disjointed nature of SAR training is seen elsewhere in police agencies, particularly with specialized units (see, e.g., Clark et al., 2000). As such, this may be indicative of a more pervasive apprehension or disillusionment of specialized training more broadly. Future research should address the training process and needs of other specialized units within policing, with samples drawn from multiple agencies across a variety of localities (e.g., states/provinces, countries) to complement the single-agency approaches used in the vast majority of studies of specialized units (e.g., Hickey & Hoffman, 2003; Menton, 2008; Mesloh, 2006).

None of the roles had instituted, structured, specialized or homogenous training; instead, SAR members relied upon informal and variable offerings that often did not meet their needs. This lack of official, formalized training for SAR personnel influenced informal training to fill the gaps. This included: 1) Mentorship and in-field learning opportunities (i.e., 'buddy time'), 2) training developed by Search Coordinators based on 'lessons learned' and personal experience, and 3) in-house refreshers. These informal training offerings often depend upon the trifecta of agency priority, command-level support, and the ‘right’ people in these roles. This is confounded by the high turnover of SAR personnel, especially given the absence of dedicated resources for SAR work. As such, informal training is unreliable and can bring about inconsistent practices. With this, there emerged a heavy reliance on initiatives by and experiences of individual police SAR personnel to drive training offerings. This means that police SAR professional training often hinges upon the personnel involved in these roles. The resource inadequacies described here are likely not unique to SAR work. Additional research should address the quality and nature of both specialized training (e.g., bike schools, ongoing unit-level K9 training) and other training offerings more broadly. For example, the training unit in most agencies works a standard day shift, thus requiring officers in units or squads assigned to the night shift to come in on their off-time for any formal training like annual officer training or use-of-force refresher training. In some cases, these units respond to the official resource deficiency by forming informal training groups, often in conjunction with other units (Gaub, Todak, & White, 2020). These types of adaptations warrant additional empirical attention.

At the provincial level, there was substantial variation between Manitoba on the one hand and Ontario and BC on the other. Officers in Ontario and BC spoke of provincially offered static training that agencies in the region can attend; while this training is not mandated, it created a semblance of standardization. However, provincially supplied training did not exist in Manitoba. One possible explanation for this difference is that Ontario and BC have enacted a Missing Persons Act, suggesting there is at least the perception of prioritizing missing persons work at the provincial level. While these findings are specific to the variability in police SAR training across Canada, this study cannot address within province or territory differences. Future research should look to disaggregate findings by province/territory to parse out these differences. In particular, relative to urban jurisdictions, rural police agencies may require other and/or additional training offerings, particularly given the differences in geography, terrain, weather, and other environments. Furthermore, the deep and sweeping concerns with police missing persons work suggest that issues over differences in training may be present in other countries. Additional study is, therefore, required to begin formulating not only an understanding of the heterogeneity in, and the related issues with, police SAR training offerings within Canadian regions, but also other areas facing similar issues with police responses to missing persons.

Second, police SAR personnel training needs are presently not met. This culminated in the expression of a need for a nationally and/or regionally mandated standard of training for all SAR roles. Such formalized, standardized, and structured programming would ensure consistent training across the board. Police SAR members remarked that this is necessary to develop and sustain internal capacity. Examples of this type of training include: dedicated mentorship programming, provincially-administered training (similar to what is offered by the OPP, but more), or passage of national or provincial legislation similar to the Missing Persons Act but specifically for police SAR operations and work. This finding is consistent with present examinations into police missing person investigations; in other words, the recommendations for improving police practices in such literature are thus still not being met despite a plethora of inquiries over several years. It is thus fair to conclude that a considerable deficit remains whereby police SAR personnel are responsible for missing person cases but lack adequate training and support (federal, provincial, or agency-level) to do so properly. While our participants expressly referred to Canada's federal or provincial guidance and standards, this issue extends beyond Canadian borders. In the US, for example, there are no federal training guidelines for SAR specifically; more generally, there are guidelines from organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police or the Commission on the Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), but neither are required by federal or state law. Some states may provide training guidance by way of Peace Officer Standards and Training certification requirements, but this is by no means uniform, and none are specific to SAR work.

These inconsistencies and deficits had substantial and pervading implications on SAR operations and work.. Officers noted differences in knowledge levels on a range of response processes and procedures like legislative and internal directives, use of SAR technologies/tools, or requirements for basic case documentation. Others discussed role strain (i.e., overwhelm) because of the discrepancy between the training available (or lack thereof) and what is required for their performance as SAR team members. Such implications are unsurprising given that police SAR members are fulfilling specialized duties without adequate and ongoing training to facilitate the necessary specialist knowledge and skills, as well as the ad-hoc nature of SAR training. This lack of training and follow-up training opportunities has been referenced throughout policing literature as impacting police response, practice, and policy (e.g., Stiles et al., 1997; Harris, 2001; Butterfield et al., 2004). These findings also raise questions about the level of Canadian police professional training for SAR. Taken together, these findings are consistent with other areas of criminal justice training; for example, studies of correctional staff training point to limited or inconsistent training as a source of increased job stress and burnout (Lambert et al., 2009; Vickovic & Griffin, 2013).

As with all research, our study is not without limitations. Our sample includes police personnel from three Canadian provinces: British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario. As such, we cannot speak specifically to the generalizability of our findings to the experiences of police SAR personnel in other provinces or outside of Canada. That said, respondents were generally consistent in their overall experiences and responses, and our findings paint a similar picture to what has been identified more broadly in the literature on police professional training and its implications. We are, therefore, confident that the emergent patterns presented in our findings would be similar in other Canadian regions and elsewhere around the world. With the variances between these three regions alone and the lack of existing national or even provincial frameworks for this type of work, it is also expected that this issue would occur in other areas across Canada. Further, the omnipresent criticisms of police responses to missing persons outside of Canada suggest training detriments and deficits may permeate borders. Our study alone cannot determine whether police SAR team training offerings and needs fluctuating across Canada generate uneven and unreliable police responses. Thus, future research should evaluate the training provided to SAR personnel in other Canadian provinces and police agencies worldwide. These issues are particularly salient when viewed through the lens of austerity policing as localities grapple with substantial budgetary constraints. If specialized training, such as for SAR, is viewed as “non-essential,” it may be some time before these deficiencies are addressed.

Additionally, our study was limited to the training offerings and needs of SAR personnel. As such, our findings provide potential explanations as to why police responses to missing person cases can be unequal, biased, and unreliable and why countless missing person cases go cold and unidentified remains exist. This unevenness can have enormous implications on public perceptions of police fairness and legitimacy, especially given increased scrutiny related to biased policing among marginalized communities. Future research should assess the impact of training protocols on case resolution outcomes to explore whether a more universal or cohesive SAR training regimen would increase police efficiency throughout the SAR process of resolving missing person cases. This is recommended with caution, given that providing intensive and homogenous training to all police SAR officers may be helpful in some ways; still, it does not necessarily and inherently create a specialized response.

Our study assesses the training available for SAR personnel from police services in three Canadian provinces, as well as their needs for fulfilling their duties for missing person cases. The findings suggest that training police personnel in SAR operations is haphazard at best, contingent on the agency prioritizing SAR work and often absent provincial or federal mandate or guidance. This lack of homogeneous, structured, and/or standardized training offerings for police SAR personnel creates inefficiencies that can have enormous implications for the successful location of missing persons. Given the state of policing in the midst of dual crises of legitimacy and austerity, along with the potential implications of poor quality or inadequate training, more effective training has the ability to boost public trust in police within the realm of SAR operations while also introducing efficient and innovative police work.

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