Photo AP/Alan Mothner
A bomb tore the rear end of this car apart. Photo Paul R. Laska
Here's a post-blast look at a bomb's battery component.Photo Paul R. Laska
FEATURED IN TACTICS AND WEAPONS
Every year, the number of bombs and explosive incidents in the United States increase. While still a miniscule statistic when compared to burglaries, robberies, rapes or homicides, the increases nonetheless exposes a growing number of officers to the hazards incumbent with these calls.
Most explosive incidents in the United States fall into one of these classes:
- Recovered military ordinance/commercial explosives;
- Emotionally disturbed persons;
- Criminal action; and
- Terrorist or extremist activity.
Our first line of defense, the American patrol officer, is thrust into this mix. Whether responding to an unusual situation, conducting a roadside vehicle search, or investigating acts reported as vandalism, it s the patrol officer who is first and foremost responsible for safety and will set the tone for the entire response and investigation.
On Feb. 1, 1992, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James Fulford stopped a vehicle on I-10 in rural Jefferson County. Unknown to him or the driver of the vehicle, a gift-wrapped package in the trunk was not in-transit drugs; it was an improvised explosive device being transported by the passenger, a drug trafficker, to his ex-wife, a witness to a previous murder.
Fulford arrested the two occupants and sent them to jail with a local deputy. As he conducted a search of the vehicle prior to impoundment, he began to open the package, and he was killed in the ensuing explosion.
Fulford s tragic death, while rare, is not unique. American police have been the targets of bombs since Chicago s Haymarket Square bombing in 1886, which killed eight police officers. Every day, law officers respond to bomb and suspicious-item calls, and they increasingly encounter bombs and explosive materials in the course of other investigations.
Bottom line: Our patrol cops must be aware of the hazards surrounding potential bombs, and know appropriate response tactics. Police standards training generally addresses bomb threats and bomb recoveries, but new threats require even more awareness and knowledge.
When in Doubt
What constitutes an explosive threat? Any bomb technician will define it, briefly, as something that doesn t fit right. Just as some traffic stops throw a warning flag, so should other situations. Packages may contain drugs and cash or a bomb. Disturbed soil or landscape may indicate a hidden device. A loose stair tread may hide a booby trap. Do you see recently moved manhole covers or gratings? Does a parked vehicle show unusual signs of overloading? Are any items unusual for the surroundings? Are there any unusual aspects to an item, such as strings, sounds, etc.?
Before proceeding, think, look and ask, and if you can t allay your suspicions, call the bomb squad, evacuate the area as needed and don t expose canine teams to the hazard.
Officers must recognize the need for an appropriate response to all potential bomb incidents. Many years ago, Pierce Brooks, in his seminal book Officer Down Code Three, gave us the term tombstone courage. There are times and occasions where a patrol officer must face the dark side the building search, the felony stop, the violent domestic, the active shooter. But there s no reason to unnecessarily expose yourself. Skirt and avoid the bomb, secure the area and wait for the bomb disposal team, just as you would wait for the SWAT team to handle a barricaded suspect or narcotics to conduct a clandestine-lab investigation.
During the Columbine High School incident, the teams clearing the school encountered a large number of IEDs, many of which had malfunctioned. They noted locations, avoided the items and, once they secured the scene, turned it over to a multi-agency bomb disposal response that spent almost a week clearing the entire school.
A tragic example: On Jan. 29, 1998, Birmingham, Ala., police officer Robert Sanderson was investigating a buried item when it exploded and killed him at an abortion clinic.
Once any item is considered suspicious, treat it as a bomb.
For any bomb-related call, secure all radios and cellular phones until the scene is fully checked and cleared of explosive devices. Trunked systems constantly transmit, and the amount of energy they produce can initiate a device.
Remember that local laws and agency policy will determine part of your response. Evacuation may seem reasonable, for example, but do your laws permit it, or are you assuming economic liability? Is it wise in light of the totality of the circumstances? Is the type of facility a consideration, such as a medical facility? Does it play into the threat maker s intents by disrupting operations?
If you do evacuate, establish a perimeter outside a safe distance, keeping personnel behind adequate cover (e.g., buildings, vehicles, etc.) to absorb any fragmentation from an explosion. How far do you evacuate? Stepping outside the building solves nothing. The old rule of thumb was a minimal 100 yards; a growing number of communities are extending this to a minimum 1,000 feet.
Inspect all perimeter and staging areas for signs of secondary devices.
The Bomb Squad
Dealing with a bomb squad is like dealing with any other hazardous materials response it s a slow, time-intensive function aimed at preserving life above all else. It will inconvenience neighborhoods, foul traffic flow and consume manpower.
If you re an officer on perimeter, accept it as a boring break, but remain alert for secondaries, suspicious onlookers and other threats. If you re a supervisor or administrator, perhaps you can swap resources, possibly using some fire-rescue assets to secure parts of the perimeter, replace patrol officers with traffic control personnel or request state highway patrol to assist with perimeter positions, freeing up your patrol cops to provide the immediate public safety responsibilities of their position.
If you re heading to a scene after an explosion has occurred, be alert in response, perimeter establishment and staging for possible secondary devices. Help fire-rescue conduct orderly victim removal, and maintain a log of where patients are transported (potential evidence may be recovered from them). Interview witnesses to learn smoke color, flash color, sound description, any reports of suspicious people or vehicles, etc.
Base the crime-scene search on the furthest piece of potential evidence plus 50 percent. The secured perimeter should be at least 100 percent larger to provide secure staging.
The Bomb-Threat Report
Bomb investigators will tell you 50 75 percent of bomb threats can be solved if the responding officers prepare a report. Threat makers hide behind a fa ade of anonymity that, like the emperor s clothes, usually isn t there. Phone calls, e-mails, written materials, face-to-face threats, etc., all produce leads that form a trail to the criminal. Considering the economic impact of a threat a school evacuated, a major store or shopping center shut down, work time lost for employees, the use of emergency personnel, etc. these crimes are definitely worthy of a solution. But the solution can only start with a well-written report.
Your report should describe:
- Who received the threat;
- The exact words of the threat;
- If spoken, a description of the voice;
- Whether it was verbal, written, electronic or in person;
- If phoned in, the incoming phone line;
- If e-mailed, the full header information; and
- The estimated economic costs of the threat.
Bombings, especially minor bombings, are often passed off as annoying vandalism. However, many minor bombings are experimentation by budding bombers learning their trade, perfecting their devices. Investigating them may, at the least, provide for intelligence collection that will later tie incidents together. Often, investigating minor bombings leads to arrests, and early intervention may well prevent later, more serious activity.
Additionally, bomb-scene investigations are unlike other crime scenes. Working minor bombings helps investigators learn the nuances of these cases, recognize post-blast evidence, and understand the effects of explosions. Just as a crime-scene investigator prepares to work homicides by processing many burglaries and recovered stolen autos, a bomb-scene investigator prepares to work a major bombing by exposure to many small ones.
As with most police work, intelligence flows from the street, and good patrol officers are a primary conduit. Awareness of your beat, keeping close contact with the variety of citizens you may contact and keeping up on new threat technologies all make you a valuable intelligence resource.
When practical, talk to people business folks, college students, religious people and yes, even the criminal element. Whether you develop knowing informants or merely glean jewels from mundane conversations, there may be much valuable information available.
Little items of information are the seeds for major investigations. A report of someone purchasing unusual amounts of fertilizer, hydrogen peroxide, acetone, etc., may be the key to preventing a major bombing.
And once you gather it, share it. If your agency has an intelligence form, use it. If not, pass the information along to an appropriate investigator, a superior or other agencies that have more developed intelligence functions. Remember one of the big lessons of Sept. 11: information sharing.
Information sharing led to the arrest of terrorist-bomber Ramzi Yousef, which occurred because a Philippine police officer responding to a fire scene thought it suspicious and notified bomb investigators.
Any bomb technician or investigator will tell you bombs are increasing in America. The patrol officer is the first line of defense, and the first target. Think safety: Be aware of your circumstances, be wary of the unknown or unusual and, if in doubt, move yourself and others to safety and let bomb disposal handle it.
Lay a sound investigative foundation, write a comprehensive report, summon appropriate technical resources to a scene and protect the scene. Finally, keep your eyes and ears open, learn what s happening, and share it. Many major terrorist plots have been foiled or solved through well documented investigations and information sharing.
Formal training resources are available. New Mexico Tech, a member of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Consortium, offers two programs. The first, Incident Response to Terrorist Bombings, is a 32-hour program that provides first responders (police, fire, EMS, emergency management, health, etc.) with very comprehensive training in explosives, bombs, preparation and response, including the opportunity to witness explosive demonstrations up to a 500-lb. car bombing. The Prevention and Response to Suicide Bomb Incidents program is aimed at providing administrators, command level personnel, and those responsible for development and implementation of policy a view of various tactics, and the opportunity to tabletop possible responses to threat scenarios.
As with all DHS programs, the DHS covers all expenses. Contact your state point of contact for registration information.
The FBI’s Hazardous Devices Program in Huntsville, Ala., provides a three-day program (funded completely by the FBI) aimed at the upper command staff, administrators and chief officers. This program introduces them to the tools and techniques of the bomb technician, and is designed to enhance their understanding of the bomb disposal function. For more information, contact your local FBI training desk.
The juvenile or experimenter by far accounts for the greatest number of incidents. These range from soda-bottle bombs to illegal pyrotechnic devices used to target mailboxes, to powerful, homemade explosives made from instructions found on the Internet. That these individuals often don’t have an evil intent doesn’t mean they don’t pose great hazards. For instance, triacetone triperoxide (TATP) is easily made from common materials and is both a powerful and extremely sensitive explosive, capable of detonation from rough handling.
Recovered materials are encountered in a wide variety of situations. Lost, misplaced, or mis-stored explosives may be found. Military ordnance is often encountered on the streets, being traded in drug deals or outright black-market sales. Areas with active military training and areas formerly used for military training (e.g., much of Florida and California) often see civilians locating fired but unexploded ordnance. Any of these materials must be considered extremely sensitive and unstable.
Emotionally disturbed persons present special considerations. Crazy and intelligent are not necessarily exclusive terms; indeed, many EDPs are highly intelligent. They do possess the thought processes necessary to manufacture explosives and devices. Combine this intellect with each one’s specific instability, and an extremely dangerous individual emerges.
The bomb has long been a tool of the criminal. It’s a tool of extortionists, robbers, perpetrators of fraud, burglars and murderers. Aside from the murderers, all are greed-driven crimes. Indeed, the world’s oldest bomb squad was formed at NYPD to deal with extortion bombings from early organized-crime groups.
Terrorist bombings have occurred in the United States since at least the late 1800s, perpetrated by a wide spectrum of political beliefs and activist rationales. Despite common belief, terrorist bombings are not just a major urban scourge; some of the earliest bombings in the United States occurred during labor unrest at coal mines in Appalachia, and today eco-terrorists have targeted ski resorts.
International events offer a preview of coming domestic events. In Great Britain, for instance, vehicle-borne bombs became common during the unrest over Northern Ireland. British police began to recognize warning signs of vehicle bombs—illegal parking, stolen vehicles, signs of modification or unusual weight, etc.—and would secure an area for their bomb disposal teams to conduct further diagnostics and incapacitation as needed. As the ATF table above illustrates, this may require an evacuation radius of 1.5 miles, a daunting but necessary safety response.
Another lesson comes from the experience of the Royal Thai Police. In Thailand, Islamist radicals will detonate a smaller device in a populated area. When first responders arrive—especially police, and most especially technical specialists—the radicals detonate a prepositioned, more powerful device, usually via a cell phone. Even as the police alter their response tactics, so do the terrorists, who may patiently await the actual investigation, or place the secondaries further from the original blast site in anticipated staging areas.
The suicide bomber has emerged internationally as a most serious threat. From Sri Lanka, India and Israel, suicide bombings have spread to many troubled lands, and are a major threat faced by American and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now is the time for agencies to promulgate policies and procedures, and train their first line, the patrol function, in appropriately dealing with this threat. The complexity of it remains far beyond the scope of this article; many local and situational considerations go into development of response tactics, not to mention legal considerations.