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If we are to believe television, all a fire marshal must do to effect an arrest is locate the suspect, knock on his door, identify himself as a law enforcement officer and inform the perpetrator that he is under arrest. At this point the arrestee will turn around, place his hands behind his back, tell his family that this is all some kind of mistake and that he will be back in a few minutes, and walk quietly with you to your car.
In the real world, it seldom if ever goes this smoothly. As illustrated in the following story, despite having the time to plan and having most conditions on your side, problems can quickly arise.
Photo by Stephane Brunet
Arson squad detectives investigated a series of general-alarm fires in Montreal, Quebec, that occurred in June 1995. The blazes left hundreds of people homeless and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.
On Aug. 31, 1992, a man who will be known as "B" in this column was paroled from New York's Downstate Correctional Facility. He had served 15 years of a nine-to-25-year sentence on a charge of murder. Less than 60 days later, B would set fire to his girlfriend's apartment when she refused to let him in.
When the battalion chief arrived on the scene, he saw the heinousness of his act. B had taken several bags of clothing, soaked them with a flammable liquid, piled them against the front door of the apartment and ignited them. Inside the apartment at the time of the fire were B's girlfriend, her brother and three young children.
What made this act particularly callous was the fact that the only way out of the apartment, aside from the front door, was a party balcony that, because of fear of intruders, had a wire fence around it, rendering it useless. B was aware of all these facts at the time he started the fire. Fortunately for the family, the firefighters were able to breach the fence from the outside and remove the occupants. Though treated for smoke inhalation, they escaped more serious injury. Immediately upon extinguishment of the fire, the battalion chief made a request for the fire marshals.
Fire Marshals Daniel P. Higgins and Bil Tulipane were the team on duty in the Bronx that night. They too saw the savageness of what might have happened. After conducting their investigation they knew who they were after, their problem would be in locating him before he could do anything else to this family.
Knowing that B had nothing to lose and that as long as he was free the family was in danger, Higgins and Tulipane devoted all their resources to apprehending him. They contacted the Department of Corrections, the Division of Parole, the police department, and B's family and friends. Soon, they had description of a car B was using and several locations he was known to frequent. It now became a waiting game, a matter of driving from one location to another checking the neighborhood for the car, while at the same time not being so conspicuous as to scare B off.
For two months, B played cat and mouse with the fire marshals, all the while harassing the family via the telephone. Finally, on Nov. 23, while checking a location at East 126th Street for the third time that tour, Higgins and Tulipane found what they had been looking for the car they sought was parked where they had been told it would be if B was in his brother's apartment.
Aware of B's violent background, coupled with the fact that if caught he faced a lengthy prison term, the marshals anticipated trouble. They had arranged for a backup to monitor the radio and were just putting in the call when their man showed. Knowing they couldn't remain unnoticed for long in their present position and, more important, not wanting to risk losing B, Higgins and Tulipane decided to make the arrest themselves. Moving quickly, they came up behind B while he was half-in and half-out of his car. Identifying themselves as police officers, they grasped B from either side to prevent his reaching for any weapons concealed in the car.
B's 15 years in prison had not been wasted. He had apparently spent a great deal of his time in the gym. Once he had cleared the car, B surprised the marshals with his quickness and strength. What ensued was an impromptu wrestling match with B trying to escape and Higgins and Tulipane attempting to restrain him while at the same time protect their weapons and keep an eye on what was at best an "unsympathetic" crowd.
After several minutes of intense struggle, the marshals were able to prevail and succeeded in getting handcuffs on B and placing him in their vehicle. After the arrest was complete, Tulipane was found to have sustained two broken ribs and multiple contusions; Higgins suffered contusions and lacerations to both hands and arms.
Don't Let Your Guard Down
The way in which a person reacts to being arrested may be totally adverse to his or her normal behavior. You cannot let your guard down for an instant. Once you have made the decision to arrest and have informed the suspect of this, you must act quickly and decisively to maintain control of the situation.
Even in matters involving less-serious offenses a marshal cannot be too careful. Vigilance should be maintained at all times. Good planning (if possible) can help to lessen the number of unfortunate incidents at arrest scenes. The following are several guidelines which should be adhered to when making an arrest:
- Never make an arrest alone. If possible, await the arrival of a backup before making the arrest. It is very difficult for a single marshal to control a suspect while placing handcuffs on him or her; in cases involving more than one suspect it becomes impossible. With the present state of communications, the marshal should know where support is and how long it will take for help to arrive..
- Always identify yourself clearly to anyone within earshot. Although especially important if you're in plainclothes, this is also necessary for uniformed officers. People who do not know exactly who you are or what your authority is may be inclined to intervene on the side of the person being arrested. If you have stated your authority this can usually be avoided.
- Attempt to make the arrest in daylight and in a geographical area that is to your advantage. It is preferable to make the arrest on the street, in the open (remembering that you must have sufficient manpower to control all possible escape routes) as opposed to the perpetrator's home or business, where he or she would have the advantage of familiarity and knowledge of any hidden weapons.
- It is best to arrest suspects when they are alone. The reasons for this are obvious. You may have no idea of the identity of any companions of a perpetrator; they may be friends or possible accomplices. When you are making an arrest, the fewer people you have to keep an eye on the better.
- Keep your vehicle as close as possible to where the arrest will take place. The quicker you can have the suspect in the car and removed from familiar environments, the better control you will have. Dragging a struggling prisoner one or two blocks can be very difficult and unsafe.
Arrest situations will always be dangerous and unpredictable. Whatever you can do to increase your safety margin should be done. While not every case can employ the methods described above, you should try to incorporate as many as possible when you have the chance.
Most situations will call for you to rely on your ingenuity and experience. In all cases, it is imperative to remember you are ultimately responsible for your own well-being.
Daniel P. Higgins is a supervising fire marshal assigned to the FDNY's Juvenile Firesetters Intervention program.