How police manhunts work

A police manhunt is a highly co-ordinated exercise that isn't quite as gritty or dramatic as it may seem in TV police shows.

Reality is usually less dramatic than what you see in police TV shows and movies

Emergency response officers check a residence in Moncton, N.B., in June 2014 during the search for the person who killed three RCMP officers and injured two others. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A local police manhunt for a suspect who is considered dangerous is extremely intense, with all available officers trying to prevent the suspect from doing more harm or leaving a localized area. But when a manhunt expands, the way the collective resources of different law enforcement teams are brought to bear is usually less dramatic than what is portrayed on television and in movies.

In June 2014, for example, hundreds of police officers from across New Brunswick and other provinces were brought in to help in local the search for the person who killed three RCMP officers and injured two others in Moncton.

But a manhunt involving a large region, "doesn’t involve getting together 200 or 300 officers, briefing them all at once and then sending them off and they go in all these different directions," Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association and the Vancouver Police Union, told CBC News during the September 2012 nationwide search for two men charged with confining and sexually assaulting a teenage boy in Nova Scotia.

"Essentially, the manhunt involves every single police officer working at any given time across this country, because each police officer would receive a message," Stamatakis said.

The subjects of the 2012 nationwide search were located within days far from Nova Scotia by police on regular patrol duty, for example. Ontario Provincial Police arrested David James Leblanc, 47, on Sept. 30, when officers responded to reports of a man in distress near Longlac, Ont., about 260 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. On Oct. 3, other members of the OPP found the body of Wayne Alan Cunningham, 31, in Longlac near a car with a Nova Scotia licence plate.

Here is a look at how police manhunts typically work when they move beyond a small area.

How is information disseminated?

Police forces across Canada are linked through the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), an electronic database managed by the RCMP. Every police officer has access to this national system. It is closed off to the public.

RCMP check the trunk of a taxi at a roadblock in Moncton on June 5 as part of a manhunt for Justin Bourque. (Marc Grandmaison/Canadian Press)

The details of every incident reported to police somewhere in Canada is entered into CPIC — names of complainants and suspects, photographic evidence, vehicle serial numbers and so on. In cases where an assailant is being sought, the incident file would include requests from the originating agency about what should be done if the individual is found in another part of the country.

"When I enter their information onto the system, it would come up that another agency is interested in talking to that person, and there could be specific instructions" for how to handle them, says Stamatakis.

That could include instructions to arrest and detain the person and notify the originating agency, which would likely send out its own officers to follow through on the investigation.

When an individual becomes the subject of a countrywide search, photos and other identifying information are distributed to all officers through CPIC as well as email. The message will typically include a picture, details of the alleged crime and identifying features of the person.

"So each time [an officer] comes on duty, they receive a package of information and they know to be on the lookout for this particular person," says Stamatakis.

What is the division of labour for any manhunt?

For an extensive search, police follow a protocol that essentially amounts to a comprehensive checklist.

In Ontario, it’s called the Major Case Management Manual, a strategy developed based on the findings of the Campbell inquiry of 1996. Chaired by Ontario Justice Archie Campbell, the inquiry studied miscommunication between various law enforcement agencies during the investigation of the Paul Bernardo case.

The lead force in a given manhunt — typically the one in the jurisdiction where the main crime occurred — assigns a "major case manager" to oversee the various pillars of the investigation.

The individual groups involved in a manhunt include people assigned to crime scene examination and post-mortem examinations, criminal profilers and those managing the reams of documents related to the case.

What happens if the search goes global?

If the manhunt expands beyond Canada’s borders, as it did in the Luka Rocco Magnotta case, the RCMP co-ordinates with Interpol, an agency with members from 190 countries that facilitates international co-operation in criminal investigations.

The RCMP refused to comment on how manhunts are conducted, saying it would be "inappropriate for us to comment at the risk of possibly compromising" an investigation.

Are there any legal hurdles when police conduct a manhunt?

Police can deploy all sorts of resources during a manhunt, including surveillance trucks and helicopters. But some procedures, like wiretapping, require warrants or judge’s orders.

Stamatakis says there are provisions in the Criminal Code that allow officers to proceed without a warrant in exigent circumstances — like a kidnapping, where every minute counts. But he says there is still an obligation to seek legal approval.

"If there is a person that is in immediate risk, you start your surveillance right away, but while you’re doing that, you’re also assigning officers to begin the process of getting judicial authorization to engage in that kind of surveillance," he says.

How important are citizen tips?

According to one police source, tips from the public are "extremely useful." While some tips might seem vague or innocuous, the police will consider them all, because every piece of information has the potential to break a case wide open.

Due to the large volume of tips, and the fact that each one must be followed up, police prioritize tips based on relevance.