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What it takes to search for an escaped fugitive

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Recent manhunts for escaped prisoners in D.C., the U.K. and Pennsylvania all raise the question of how easy it is to disappear into the sea of humanity, and what are the tools available to officials who have to find these people? Well, back in 2015, Brent Davison helped in the search for two inmates who escaped a corrections facility in the state of New York. He is now a major for the New York State Police and joins us now. Welcome.

BRENT DAVISON: Thank you.

CHANG: So can you start us off, Major Davison, by telling us briefly about this manhunt back in 2015? I remember it transfixed the country. The prisoners escaped through a tunnel in the Clinton Correctional Facility. It took police something like 20 days to locate them. What did your agency learn from that manhunt that you think investigators in Pennsylvania can take away right now?

DAVISON: Well, certainly the cooperation from all the responding agencies played a big part in us apprehending inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat back in 2015. Obviously, if the inmates get out into the rural environment, as we dealt with up here in New York state, it can be very difficult in locating them. We used canines and special response teams to search for them, and it was still very difficult in tracking their location.

CHANG: Can you talk more about that? Like, what kind of coordination happens once an escape is reported? What agencies get involved once an official manhunt is activated? Can you tell us about the protocol?

DAVISON: Yes. It becomes an all-hands-on-deck approach. Pretty much all federal, state and local agencies respond to the area. A leads desk is set up, and it becomes a massive search operation involving pretty much any of those agencies that you can think of that are federal, state and local.

CHANG: All hands on deck. Well, in the manhunt in Pennsylvania now, where they're looking for a convicted murder, the search - I know it's been hindered by the heat. Sometimes weather is just one obstacle. What other obstacles tend to get in the way of something, a search of this scale? Can you talk about that?

DAVISON: Yes. Some obstacles that we dealt with up in our area were just the rural area that the inmates escaped into. We had no cellphone coverage in most of the area. Even our radios, police radios worked in a spotty manner.

CHANG: Wow.

DAVISON: You know, very rural - acres and acres of woods with no houses. The inmates were able to access seasonal camps and hide out in there for days. They got access to weapons, drugs, alcohol, clothing, which assisted them in prolonging their escape.

CHANG: When an escape happens where the fugitive has been convicted of a violent crime, obviously, there's a lot of concern for the public safety. What is your advice for how people in the local community should think about news of escapes like this? How should they be behaving? How should they assess the risk to themselves?

DAVISON: Yes. Obviously, that was probably our biggest concern was the safety of the public during our manhunt. We always want the community to be very vigilant. Maybe if they don't normally lock their doors, to keep their doors locked and report any suspicious sightings, sounds or activity that they're not used to seeing to their police immediately, probably not do a lot of traveling on their own, if possible. And, you know, just remain vigilant.

CHANG: Yeah. Brent Davison is Troop B commander for the New York State Police. Thank you so much for giving us your time today.

DAVISON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.