If you suspect a hazard, back off, take safety steps, and let the hazardous device professionals take over.
When you are called to a location that may be booby-trapped with explosive devices, question the neighbors before charging in.
Ask the neighbors if they have seen unusual activity. Neighbors tend to notice suspicious things like people unloading unusual packages as stealthily as possible, a sign that someone is running drugs. But neighbors will also notice the individual who never steps on the front doormat or the person who uses the bathroom window to come and go.
When questioning a suspect, learn what you can from the subject of your contact. What demeanor is shown? Why does he or she not want to be at the location, whether a traffic stop or a residential call?
Does he have a drug record? Does he act like a courier, but show actual ignorance about what he is carrying or admit to being a drug courier but has not seen what is being carried?
You can also take advantage of databases to learn more about a person and a location. Criminal histories can tell you if someone is a likely bomber. They can reveal obvious red flags such as when a person has a history of bomb making. But they also show yellow flags such as a history of minor arrests for disorderly conduct, misdemeanor, and vandalism consistent with political activism. When you see such intel, it's time to act with caution.
Cookers and Cook Sites
Beginning in the mid-1980s, clandestine labs became a significant law enforcement problem. Although these are predominantly drug labs, some of them are homemade explosive labs.
Both drug labs and homemade explosive labs use a variety of highly hazardous material, present significant danger should one interrupt a process, and yield deadly products.
Explosive compounds are also easily mistaken for drugs. Peroxide explosives generally will be a white powder or crystalline material, very similar to cocaine, heroin, or many other drugs. Note: Never use an acid-based drug field test kit on peroxide explosives. If you do, the sample will violently detonate.
As a patrol officer, your best course of action is to secure any lab and refer entry to trained and equipped specialists. However, circumstances dictate procedures and a tactical situation may require taking action. If so, quickly secure offenders and victims and retreat to safety. Do not interfere with processes, turn on or off any electrical devices, or stop to collect any evidence; leave these things for a trained specialist.
If you enter a clandestine lab, you are exposed, and must be considered contaminated. Expect to be quarantined until hazardous materials specialists arrive. When the hazmat guys do arrive, you will be washed down, stripped of everything you entered with, and possibly be sent for medical evaluation. It is not just for your health-it's for the health of anyone you may encounter until fully decontaminated, including fellow officers, citizens, and family.
Bomb and explosive incidents have consistently, if slowly, grown in numbers. Whether initiated by terrorists, criminals, juveniles, or emotionally disturbed individuals, bombings may occur in any jurisdiction. Police will often be on the leading edge encountering devices and their makers. If you recognize the potential of bombs and maintain situational awareness, your safety, as well as that of the public you serve, is greatly enhanced.
A Counter-Terrorism Training Resource
Explosive Devices: Steps To Survival
Duty Dangers: Booby Traps
Paul R. Laska is a retired law enforcement officer with 29 years of experience in crime scene investigation, fingerprint identification, and bomb disposal. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.