Often engineered with little more than rudimentary know-how, real world booby traps may lack the sophisticated engineering of those in the "Saw" films, yet prove every bit as lethal. And unlike time-delay or remote-detonated explosives, the booby trapper's conceit is that his victim actually activates his own peril. An ill-timed footstep, a switch of a light, or the sudden movement of some seemingly harmless object can put lethality in motion. To further hedge their bets, booby trappers may attempt to lure the victims into activating the device by using "bait."
Whatever the nature or purpose of a booby trap, law enforcement officers have a vested interest in familiarizing themselves with the various means by which a booby trap can be effected. The recent cowardly assaults on police officers in Hemet, Calif., are reflective of the types of dangers officers may encounter when the bad guys decide to use booby traps against local authorities.
In Hemet, a wave of booby traps was used against gang investigators. In one incident, a ballistic device strapped to a fence at the gang unit's compound propelled a bullet within inches of an officer's face. In another, someone rerouted a natural gas line at the compound, filling the building with flammable vapor. Someone also attached an explosive device to an unmarked police car after its driver entered a convenience store.
To counter the booby trap campaign and any further assaults, the Hemet Police Department has authorized expenditures to fortify the police department building. More importantly, a series of search warrants served on 35 homes resulted in the arrests of 16 people for a variety of weapons, narcotics, and parole violation charges.
The attempted assaults on Hemet officers are not unique.
Cops need to know more about how to avoid and counter these devices because they are starting to be more and more a part of the criminal arsenal. For example, Las Vegas authorities recently recovered an abandoned stolen Cadillac Escalade in which the suspects had set a trap. They ran a wire from a light bulb in the passenger side door to a full five-gallon gas can. Fortunately, the low-tech contraption did not detonate when the door was opened by law enforcement officers.
And in Northern California, Butte County Sheriff's Department officials discovered plastic baggies inside the gas filler tubes of 12 patrol vehicles. The baggies were rendered visible when the gas cap was removed and subsequent investigation found their contents to be granular substances with a very strong alkaloid substance. Once exposed to water and gasoline, the substance becomes volatile. No explosions or serious injuries have been reported from these incidents. However, two employees who were exposed to the substance reported having skin irritation.
Officers can also be maimed or killed by booby traps intended for others. Devices left as deterrents to enemy gang members or rival narcotics dealers, as well as those rigged simply to destroy incriminating evidence, can be lethal.
Anticipating the Threat
Booby traps are probably not on the mind of the average street cop going about his business. Nor should they be. But if you deal with gang members, radical groups, or narcotics dealers then you should be anticipating this threat. And the more information that an officer has about the variables of the locations or persons he deals with, the greater likelihood he can determine the nature of such a threat and mitigate it.
One of the more obvious police operations where you are likely to face booby traps is during the service of search warrants. Assuming you get inside the location and have otherwise secured the inhabitants, it's not a bad idea to ask them about the prospects of coming across booby traps.
Sometimes, this actually works. When Wisconsin authorities served a warrant on a marijuana cultivation site in Dane County, the suspect identified booby traps surrounding some of the marijuana plants, thereby preventing injuries to any on scene.