What comes to mind when I say the phrase specialized police unit?
Police dogs? Homicide detectives? The gang unit? Perhaps foot patrol or officers on horseback? All of these are common specialized police units—and there are many others besides. But what makes a unit a specialty unit? What differentiates them from general patrol?
Overall, specialized police units fall into one of three categories:
Units specializing in a particular patrol method. Most common among these types of units would be foot patrol units, but this classification also includes units that patrol using bicycles, horses (also referred to as mounted or equestrian units), motorcycles, Segways, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), boats/jetskis, and aerial vehicles (e.g., helicopters, drones). These types of units are used because the area being patrolled requires a patrol method other than a car; for example, foot or bike patrol is common in crowded downtown districts, mounted units are often used in parks, and ATVs are useful on beaches.
Units specializing in specific crime type. These are units that were created to address specific crime problems, such as gang units or vice units. Officers in these units are often quasi-investigators, and are not part of a standard patrol routine. Over time, this evolved to include units handling particular call types, such as a unit dedicated to handling disorder or domestic violence calls.
Units specializing in unique tactics. The most identifiable of these units is Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT – it even has “tactics” in the name), which handle calls that are frequently highly volatile, involving high-risk people, places, and/or crimes. Canine units use tactics designed to apprehend suspects or detect explosives, drugs, and/or people. In the strictest sense of the word, investigative bureaus also fall into this category because they are trained in the specifics of criminal investigations.
You might be wondering, “Where do Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel fit within to this framework?” SAR teams focus on specific call types—missing persons cases, or in rare cases, generalized searches following natural disasters or similar events—and use specialized tactics to do their jobs. Yet, surprisingly, the word “team” or “unit” would only loosely apply to SAR personnel in most police departments. Instead, SAR-trained/certified personnel commonly have permanent assignments throughout the agency, and are “detailed” to SAR when operations are activated when a person is determined to be missing.
Rather than this loose, fragmented view of SAR, it is imperative that police agencies view SAR as a specialization worthy of dedicated resources in the form of a permanent, specialized unit*. There are multiple reasons why agencies should establish a dedicated SAR unit:
It legitimizes SAR operations and work, giving credibility to its importance and recognizing the expertise that comes from a unique skillset honed over time.
It would reduce turnover, which preserves institutional knowledge and encourages continuity and efficiency. This is especially important when a solid understanding of the basics of conducting SAR operations can literally be a life-or-death matter for missing persons.
It is the first step in promoting or encouraging standardized training for SAR personnel. Most SAR training is highly variable, which leads to inefficiencies that reduce effectiveness.
Specialization is a hallmark of bureaucratic institutions, including policing. And in policing, specialization indicates prestige. Specialized units are the elite units, usually requiring additional testing and training. Establishing dedicated SAR units would likely increase efficiency and effectiveness—two key agency outcomes highly valued by command staff—and signal to communities that recovering lost and missing persons is a priority worthy of dedicated resources.
*Particularly for police services that have higher relative call volume of lost and missing person cases.
Writer: Janne E. Gaub, Ph.D.
Dr. Janne E. Gaub is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research centers on policing, with a focus on body-worn cameras (BWCs), specialty units, misconduct, and gender. Her work has been published in outlets including Criminology & Public Policy, Journal of Experimental Criminology, Crime & Delinquency, and Police Quarterly.