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Suspicious Packages

One of the most unnerving calls to which officers can be dispatched is a suspect package. Part of the reason for this is the genuine fear the officers may feel—not necessarily the obvious fear of being blown to pieces by a bomb—but the fear of not knowing exactly what they’re doing. Naturally, thoughts would be going through the officers’ head of being killed while examining a suspect device, i.e., “What would my buddies say about me if I’m stupid enough to be killed?” All of this while trying to promote a confident, professional image to the public makes the whole job unpleasant to say the least.

During Hertfordshire, UK Constabulary’s Policing Serious Incidents Course, subject matter experts teach officers how to deal with suspect devices. This is reassuring for the students on the course given the increased number of such calls from the public. There is no doubt in the current world climate, with the risk from international terrorism assessed as severe that the general public is more vigilant.

Consequently, calls for service from them are increased. Is the backpack that is left unattended at the bus terminus merely the result of an absent-minded school kid, or is it an improvised explosive device (IED) packed with shrapnel ready to explode and shred and tear through innocent people waiting for their rides to work? It’s a tough call.

Officers are taught a simple process in order to help them make a reasoned judgement in a typical case. The process is a number of questions the officer has to ask. If the answer to any of the questions is “yes,” then the unattended item should be treated as a possible IED. It starts with the call itself, the time it was made and the general terrorist threat level at that time.

Next is the location: Is the item at or near a potential terrorist target? This is a hard call to make considering the wide variety of targets that are politically acceptable to international terrorists; however, some locations may be discounted as unlikely due to a perceived lack of effect or potential casualties. For example, it is unlikely a bomb would be placed in a large deserted parking lot on a derelict site.

This assessment will give the officer an overall level of suspicion, call it a gut feeling or officer’s nose, within which to frame a number of questions. Have there been any specific bomb threats or intelligence? Has there been any suspicious activity? Was the item hidden or attempted to be hidden? Is the item unusual for its surroundings?

Only if the answers to all the above questions are “no” should the officer attempt to examine the item further. If at any point during the subsequent examination the officer becomes suspicious, then it should be treated as an IED.

This process allows officers to make a reasoned judgement on whether or not an unattended item is an innocent piece of abandoned luggage or a suspect IED. There is then a strict protocol for the action to be taken if the officer suspects he is dealing with a potential terrorist bomb.

The first point to be made here is that the management of the department has to fully back its officers in making these exceptionally difficult judgements. It is not cheap to evacuate large areas, particularly business and commercial locations. Nor is it inexpensive to deploy specialist units of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams, i.e., bomb squads.

However, the officer making the call needs to know that his department will back him up if the call turns out to be “just another false alarm.” With the nature of the current threat, deterrence and prevention are arguably more vital than detection and prosecution. Therefore, it is far better to deploy the resources than have them on stand-by for the “Big One.” This may be the Big One!

Much advice must be given to officers who make the call that what they are dealing with is an actual IED, 1) Move to an area that is not in direct line of sight with the device, 2) Move away from glass and parked vehicles, 3) Move away from secondary hazards, for example electricity, gas, etc., 4) Move behind hard cover, solid walls, etc., and 5) Set cordons at 100 yards for items carried by hand; 200 yards for suspect cars and small vans; and 400 to 800 yards for suspect large vehicles.

Once the officers are safe, they have to have information recorded for briefing the bomb disposal officers. It is stressed that they should never return to obtain this information, so it is vital that they make notes on their first attendance at the scene. Also, as they move from the item’s location to a safe area, they should ensure that a clear route is left open by removing obstacles or propping open any doors to assist in subsequent access (for example operation of a tracked/wheeled bomb disposal robot).

The information to be made available together with any sketch plans can be gained by asking a number of questions.

WHAT is it? (description of size, visible electrical components, smells, leaks, etc.)

WHERE is it? (the precise location, next to what structure and access routes)

WHEN was it found? (and has it been moved by anyone?)

WHY do you think it is suspicious? (the activity in area, the threats, etc.)

WHO are the witnesses? (and what is their credibility?)

Sketch plan of route and of device.

These processes are difficult to remember, particularly when acting under stress, but it is really just a version of the standard “Who, What, When, Where, Why, How” that many officers already know. To help, officers are given aide-memoire cards containing this information. Also, the information is included in the patrol officer’s handbook that patrolling officers carry in their equipment. The mnemonic device BOMB ALERT is printed in them, which includes a comprehensive list of factors to be considered when dealing with a suspected IED.

Building: Type, construction, political target?

Occupants: Who lives or works there, close by?

Method of search: What extent of a search been done and by whom?

Back off: Assess other nearby targets, secondary devices. Be observant. Secondary devices are occasionally deployed by terrorists to cause higher casualties. For example in 1998, the IRA sent a hoax bomb warning and then detonated a 500-pound bomb at the site where it knew the evacuees would be gathered, causing 29 deaths and 220 injuries.

Accurate information: Inform dispatch. Be accurate clear and concise. Obtain instructions for officers assigned to RV points and control points. Traffic diversions.

Locate informants, witnesses, suspects. Obtain details and keep them away from danger.

Evacuate: Consider evacuation plans, public private premises, bomb shelter areas. Evacuate within cordons.

Rendezvous point: Establish the RVP and control point and inform dispatch of their locations.

Tape off: Cordon tape, correct cordon distances. Keep unauthorized people out. Control access to inside cordon and confirm identity of emergency responders.

As can be seen, the factors above will ensure that most things are considered in the early stages of a response, before any contingency plans being implemented. It is vital that officers have a clear policy to follow as they will be acting under extreme stress.

By using simple aide-memoire cards or having a dispatcher lead an officer through the process, the first responding officer has a lot of the pressure removed from him. This ensures clarity of thought and effective decision making that will lead to more effective resolution of these difficult jobs.

Jim Dowle has worked as an operational police officer for 16 years, with a tactical firearms team, as a close protection officer and as a sniper for more than 10 years. He is now working as a trainer at the Force Headquarters. His department borders the north of London and has about 3,900 employees. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2006

Rating : 5.5

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