Suspicious Packages and Booby Traps

There are hundreds of stories of officers conducting a search and thinking a container of drugs has been located only to discover pipe bombs. With infernal machines, as with guns, knives, and physical assaults, an awareness, a suspicious mind, a professional paranoia, are the first steps toward survival.

  • 1992 Florida—Trooper Jimmy Fulford died while conducting an inventory search of a vehicle following a traffic arrest on I-10. Fulford may have suspected the gift-wrapped package of being in-transit drugs, not a bomb being delivered by ignorant drug runners to eliminate a loose end.
  • 2008 Woodburn, Oregon—Senior Trooper William Hakim and Capt. Tom Tennant of the Woodburn Police Department were killed by a bomb placed at a bank.
  • 2009 Hemet, CaliforniaPolice are targeted by bombs, booby traps, arson, and gunfire.

What these incidents show is that the patrol officer is very often the tip of the spear dealing with explosive devices. Not as a responder to a bomb threat or suspicious item but as a primary or unintended target, confronting an unexpected, hidden threat.

Every good officer thinks the worst when approaching a traffic stop, disturbance, or domestic. Since the 1930s we have known that Granny may be Ma Barker. Yet the same level of awareness that keeps officers safe from physical assaults is overlooked when considering explosives and related threats.

There are hundreds of stories of officers conducting a search and thinking a container of drugs has been located only to discover pipe bombs. With infernal machines, as with guns, knives, and physical assaults, an awareness, a suspicious mind, a professional paranoia, are the first steps toward survival.

Look Don't Touch

Bomb threat search training emphasizes using your eyes and ears, and not hands, to conduct a search. Bombs are often triggered by action, perhaps because the item is booby-trapped, perhaps because the device has malfunctioned.

Crime scene response emphasizes an awareness of your feet and hands. This is also good advice for dealing with bombs. Don't let your hands or feet go places without visually inspecting them first. Use your flashlight before moving items.

Also, you can use resources and tools to give you an indication of what is really inside a suspicious package. For example, if you suspect a package contains drugs, call for a drug detection K-9. If the dog does not alert, throw a warning flag and call for a bomb dog. Is an explosives detection dog reasonably available? If not, and if your trained senses tell you the package is suspicious, do not molest it. Call the bomb disposal unit that provides your agency support.

Use your eyes not your hands. The fact that something is not right should raise caution flags. That unusual hole could be a video camera, or could be an infrared trigger, so give it a wide berth. Use your ears to pinpoint sounds and attempt to identify and eliminate them.

Watch Your Step

Bombs are often triggered by the vicitim's footfall. Mats, loose papers, and disturbed grass are potential signs of a pressure switch.

You also have to be aware of tripwires. Extend your collapsible baton, hang a four-foot length of crime scene tape from the end, and let it walk ahead, where it will drape over any hidden wires. If your kit includes a 36-inch riot baton, use that instead.

Particularly dangerous is the "tanglefoot" style of tripwire. A tanglefoot is a loose tripwire that lies on the ground and is designed to get tangled about a walker's feet. If you suspect a tanglefoot, look hard for it. Use your light. If you carry an alternate color light (many tactical lights include an ultraviolet, blue, or red source) switch between colors. Different materials react differently under different types and colors of light.[PAGEBREAK]

If you suspect a hazard, back off, take safety steps, and let the hazardous device professionals take over.

Human Intel

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

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