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01-31-09, 08:13 AM
Tracking & Suspect Identification
The Difference is in the Dirt

Posted: January 30th, 2009 06:51 AM GMT-05:00

Tracking Contributor

I was at the SHOT Show this month, as was my editor Frank Borelli, so I took the opportunity to hang out with him a little bit and discuss future articles. Frank's a decent guy and good to talk to (if you don't use many big words) but he doesn't know a whole lot about tracking. I was trying to explain some of the suspect ID applications inherent in good visual track interpretation, but it's hard to make someone new to the skill understand without putting them out on the ground with prints and ground spoor in front of them.

We were wandering around over past the registration area, saying hello to the folks we know and ogling the booth babes, when I spotted all the guys manning the Tango Down section.

"Here's a good example," I told Frank, pointing over at them. "Setting aside the difference in each man's size and stature, how could you differentiate one from the other after they left?"

Each of the guys in that booth, as well as those in the 10-8 Performance section right next to them, were wearing matching polo shirts and trendy, cargo-pocketed cop britches. A witness would have a difficult time separating each from the other without more than a cursory glance, even with an adequate look at their facial features.

Frank shrugged. "Different kinds of boots?" he suggested.

I sighed. Despite his attempt to follow my line of reasoning, I could tell by the vague and vacuous expression on his face he was more worried about lunch than learning to track.

"That would be one way," I said, making an effort to speak slowly, "but what if they were in the same style of boots?"

He scratched his head. I decided to take pity on him.

"Every individual print, every track line, is unique," I told him, "and the unique nature of footprints, or the totality of the spoor collection, is specific enough for use as physical evidence. The difference, Frank, is in the dirt!"

There are a number of ways to tell one individual from another, even when disregarding the most obvious signs of size and sole pattern. The biggest obstacle may not be locating these attributes, but in first accepting they are there and second having the confidence to find them and explain them in a TOC, at an intel debrief or on a witness stand. Speaking to military operators as much as to cops and detectives, the substantive differences between individual footprints and their interpretation taken in context, can be a critical element of establishing ground truth - whether at a crime scene or in the battlespace.

Let me give you an example.

In December of 2007 I was at Horno helping teach a Combat Tracking class with David Scott-Donelan and some of his cadre (this was before the advent of the Combat Hunter program). About half the class was walking back from a sub shop past some bleachers when one of the Marines from 3/1 pointed at a nice footprint on the side of the asphalt. As prints go, you couldn't have asked for better. It was so clear you could almost read the name brand of the boots in the center.

"There's Mr. McCaig", the Marine said, meaning the progenitor of the print. I glanced down at it from my usual perch in my handler's gear and sure enough, it looked like McCaig's print to me.

Now, let me explain that McCaig and one of the other instructors were physically very similar. At the time both went about 180lbs., both were 5'10" tall, and both were wearing size 9 Adidas GSG9 boots. (GSG9s are great boots, but they have terribly distinctive sole patterns, which is why Mr. Scott-Donelan so often chastened his cadre for wearing them.)

Another Marine knelt down beside the print and remarked that it was indeed Mr. McCaig's print, and that it was crisp enough despite the loose soil conditions to draw a good spoor card. Mr. Scott-Donelan shook his head, no, without bothering to kneel or lean any closer to the print.

"That's not Michael’s," he said, "It's David's."

Then he knelt and indicated the bootprint. "Michael has a much less pronounced pitch angle, and in any case, you can see here [he drew a circle in the dirt around part of the print] where the heel has worn much more smoothly than Michael's. He's had two MCL surgeries on his right knee, which translates through the way he walks to a different wear pattern than would be typical of such a boot."

I glared hard at the footprint in case the ferocity of my gaze would somehow transform itself into comprehension.

"Besides, as I'm sure you lads noticed when they pitched up here during the first exercise, Michael has a noticeable difference between the pitch angle of his left foot compared to his right."

Now I hadn't noticed that, nor judging by the muttered profanity of the Marines around me, had any of the others we were teaching.

"Simple enough to notice once you know to look for it," he said, standing once more and looking at the young trackers-to-be standing around. "I daresay now that it's been pointed out to you, none of you will mistake the two again."

He was right, about two things. None of the Marines made that mistake again, on any of the field exercises to follow. Nor did they again have difficulty picking out the little things that differentiate one seemingly identical print from another - no small feat in a class of nearly twenty, all in the same style of boot, on a base with thousands of similar boot patterns seemingly laid everywhere it was possible to walk.

The point is, there are always going to be differences, if you know what to look for, and you don't have to be a former Rhodesian Selous Scout or an Iban headhunter to see them. Your average street cop can tell the difference at a glance between .38 special brass and .45 brass, right? Same with a soldier and 5.56mm and 7.62mm. To the trained and even moderately educated eye, the contrast is obvious.

Read next month's installment to learn more about how the difference is in the dirt.

Richard Kilgore has been involved in tracking for approximately ten years, though his real operational experience following ground spoor didn’t begin until after 9/11. Formerly affiliated with several municipal and at least one rural law enforcement agency, Richard is a long-time tactical professional, a miscegenation of various tactical instructors and something of a luminary among action figures. Though not as tall as most special operators, he believes that everyone deserves to hear his opinions. He satisfies the great demand for his insight by writing for Officer.com and blogging at www.BreachBangClear.com.