Most investigations require a search to be conducted. The nature and circumstances of the investigation indicate the level of search required, together with the resources and/or specialists needed.

Search is defined as the capacity to locate specific targets using intelligence assessment, systematic procedures and appropriate detection techniques.

This content should be read in conjunction with APP on Search [OFFICIAL – SENSITIVE] which provides current advice on the technical aspects of conducting a search.


Search can be deployed as an investigative tactic with the following aims:

  • identifying and locating sources of material
  • locating evidence to support a prosecution
  • gathering intelligence
  • locating missing persons
  • depriving criminals of their resources.

The police search adviser (PolSA) is trained to plan and manage search activity and should be consulted whenever advice is needed, particularly in complex cases and in all major enquiries. Overall responsibility for the management of the investigation is retained by the investigator, however, the PolSA can advise the investigator on the use of appropriate search assets, methods of deployment and specialist and expert assets which might be available outside the police service.

Identifying and locating sources of material

Searches can be conducted to identify and locate the following sources of material:

  • crime scenes
  • victims, witnesses or suspects
  • physical material (eg, weapons, stolen or discarded property, CCTV videotape or other media storage, documents)
  • scientific material (biological and chemical, eg, fingerprints, blood, semen, saliva, hair, firearms discharge residue, drugs)
  • escape routes
  • hides, storage or deposit sites
  • electronic media stored within IT systems or telecommunications equipment
  • passive data generators.

Legal search powers

Searches can usually be carried out with the consent of the owner/occupier. Investigators rarely face objections from victims or witnesses. They should, however, be prepared to explain the reasons for carrying out the search.

Officers should consider the following:

  • is there lawful access to the property?
  • is a search warrant required?
  • do section 17 and section 18 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 apply?

Risk assessment

The early decisions on the level of searches to be undertaken are subject to a risk assessment, which is governed by the following critical factors:

  • the need to preserve life
  • an immediate threat to life
  • immediate pursuit of a suspect
  • the likelihood of destruction, damage or disposal of material, caused by weather or outside interference with the material
  • the likelihood that recovering the material will lead to the rapid arrest of a suspect.

Record keeping

Records must be made of the:

  • areas searched and the level of intrusion
  • identity of all individuals conducting the search
  • search techniques, equipment used and search duration
  • significant material found at the location
  • damage caused
  • other persons present during the search.

It is vital that these records are accurate and reflect the true extent of a search.

Any areas not searched, as a result of difficulties with access, must be identified and brought to the notice of the investigator and/or the PolSA.

Evidence handling

All material recovered during searches should be handled appropriately, and labelled and packaged in accordance with force instructions. Where it is not possible to complete a search in one continuous period, the scene should be preserved and protected (see managing scenes).

Prioritising searches

There are rare occasions when the need to conduct a physical search conflicts with the requirement to conduct a forensic examination. Any physical search increases the potential risk of contaminating the scene. As a rule, the forensic search (undertaken by trained specialists) should take precedence over the physical search.

There will be occasions when the investigator is faced with one or more of the critical factors (see risk assessment). In these circumstances, the search must be conducted in a manner that minimises the contamination risk, and the way in which this was achieved should be recorded. Wherever possible, advice on the most suitable method to use should be sought from experts such as a crime scene investigator or crime scene manager and the PolSA.

Where it is immediately obvious that the scene represents a serious or major incident, and there are no immediate risks to life or the material within the scene, the initial attending officer should:

  • secure and protect the scene
  • request assistance
  • inform a supervisor or senior officer.

Search methods

Search methods vary according to the type of investigation being conducted, but all searches must be thorough. Officers receive training in search techniques under the national search learning programme, and these should be adhered to at all times.

The primary objective of a search dictates the search methods to use. The location and subject of the search also determines the most applicable method, eg, the search of a known drug dealer’s premises may be more intrusive than that of a juvenile shoplifter’s house. Usually, the purpose of searches conducted during volume crime investigations is to locate:

  • crime scenes
  • stolen or abandoned property
  • suspects
  • concealed drugs
  • other material of evidential value.

When premises or vehicles associated with a suspect are being searched, officers should be briefed on the evidential potential of, eg, bank statements or phone records so that they are able to identify such material as they search. See passive data generators.

Initial searches

The term initial is widely accepted in the field of search and rescue. It should not be construed as lacking in thoroughness or detail and should be part of an investigative fast-track action.

An initial search is a preliminary visual check using available local resources. These searches should be systematic and methodical. A detailed record of the nature and extent of the initial search assists in the formulation of any later search plans.

The purpose of an initial search is to make a rapid identification of material likely to assist in an investigation. Consideration must, however, be given to the potential risk of damaging forensic opportunities. Initial searches are commonly used during the golden hour. Failure to carry out these searches could result in material being lost, damaged or destroyed, and this would be detrimental to the investigation.

Open door searches

The minimum standard required for a search of premises is an open door search. This entails opening all doors and searching all rooms, outhouses, sheds, lofts, cupboards, wardrobes and drawers. Searches of premises should be conducted in accordance with the advice contained in the national search learning programme.

Searching a vehicle requires the clean and dirty approach. This includes an examination of the interior and exterior and areas such as the engine compartment, wheel spaces and boot.

Fully managed searches

This type of search is intrusive and detailed. It is conducted by individuals who are trained and licensed by NPCC as police search team officers, following training delivered by the PNSC.

These officers are managed and deployed under the control of the PolSA, who is responsible for the conduct and management of the search. Staff conducting the search may require a briefing from the investigator.

The use of trained search assets has been shown to deliver a range of benefits to an investigation, namely:

  • consistency in approach
  • structured documentation
  • enhanced confidence
  • greater levels of recovery
  • enhanced quality of service.

Research has shown that there is an 87% improvement in performance (measured against the above criteria) when trained search teams are deployed.

Further advice

Page last accessed 01 April 2020