08/06/2007

Shawn HughesWMD and Bomb Disposal Issues
with Shawn Hughes

Tips to surviving a suspicious or disabled vehicle call

There used to be a time where if you got a call to check an unattended vehicle, you could take your time, park anywhere, run the tag and call for a hook.

While there will always be a few in the blue who will never change, with the increased threats Patrol faces today, now is a good time to review your procedures.

Obviously, nothing I’m telling you should supercede your written policy and procedures, of course.

The first thing that should happen you have no real control over. Encourage your already – overworked dispatchers and call takers to squeeze more information out of people reporting abandoned vehicles or traffic hazards. Something as simple as, “Do you see anyone around the vehicle?” could be huge later. And, with the bloom of video-enabled phones, it would be trivial to ask the caller to shoot a clip of the people they are seeing. Imagine how things might have gone differently in Oklahoma City if people were whipping out their phones when the Ryder Truck came to a stop?

Next, as you ride to this call, hopefully you have done your homework. It doesn’t matter if your department trickles down intelligence or hot sheets. There are plenty of internet sites offering real-time intelligence now. And, you should be familiar with the places in your beat or zone, anyway. Obviously, a chemical plant or military prime contractor should raise your awareness. But, what about other indicators; are they striking? Are they in what we might term a polarizing business like gene research, abortions, or some other hot-button topic? Is this a critical infrastructure, like the only bridge into town, or where all the town’s utilities converge? Are we nearing a date in history that has significance to Bad People?

If you don’t do a roll call, did you at least talk to someone on the previous shift or listen to the Patrol channel on the way into work? “Hey, they finally fired that nut at the metal plating plant” might sound like idle chatter now, but in ten years, when they are teaching your incident in the Police Academy, that one snippet of conversation could have been the difference between your failure and success later that day.

As you near the scene of the call, are you paying attention? I hate to use the entertainment industry as an example of best practices, but how many movies have we seen where the Officers are tearing ass to a call so hard they don’t notice the Bad Guy quietly leaving the scene? That chestnut of movie scriptwriters has a basis in factual history. Think about it, you are in an industrial district. You’re nowhere near a bus stop. Or, you are in a rural area. Why is that guy walking?

When you get on-scene, resist the urge to park closely to the vehicle causing the problem. Use your cruiser to direct traffic and create a safe work zone as necessary, but consider this: in an explosion, the force of the blast and heat dissipate exponentially with the distance from the seat. That five feet you shaved off of your walk to the car might have saved you your face skin and hearing.

Also, don’t just totally zero in on the car; look around (and, don’t forget up). Who is watching you? Its’ an unattended double parked car, whoop-de-do. Why is there somebody videotaping? Might be because it is a growing trend for criminals to record their operations for posterity.

Think for a second. Is this a reasonable place for a car to be? Or, is it an excellent place to maximize the potential for explosion? Or, to release a gas to kill crowds? There is an empty loading zone, so why is this truck parked here? Why would someone ditch a running car in a drop off lane? Could this call be diverting resources from the real incident? Maybe this car is a honeypot to lure you into where someone can pick you off with a rifle (which is why I said to look up earlier)?

Walking up on the vehicle, size it up. Most cars have neutral rake, in other words, the front and the rear of the vehicle are even. A car that is squatting in the rear (like your overloaded radio car trunk) might be telling you something unusually heavy awaits. More subtle clues, such as a box van covered in road grime, but a shiny license plate, or even how the bottoms of the tires may appear flat due to excess weight all can help you to form an opinion as to what may really be going on.

When you get to the vehicle, look inside without touching it (you DID bring a flashlight, didn’t you?) Smell anything funny? Obviously, a burning smell, or something like the range after a bunch of people have shot should be an immediate threat indicator. But, what about shoe polish? Or ammonia? Or acid? Unless it is body funk or gasoline, generally cars should not be emitting a strong odor of anything. A warning; don’t be doing any deep breathing exercises here. Many war gases have the characteristic of being able to overwhelm your nose so that you no longer can smell anything, and if its’ a rolling meth lab instead of a bomb, one hard whiff could permanently compromise your lung functioning. So, look for the obvious smell, but I don’t recommend huffing at the panel seams.

Obvious indicators include sacks or containers of stuff piled in every nook and cranny with thin wires or pieces of fabric covered or round, extension cord looking tubes interconnecting them, items that reasonably appear to be common explosives or ordnance, timing devices or fuses. More subtle ones: there is a crappy or no stereo in the car, why are wires running to the trunk or back into the cargo area? Has the back seat been replaced incorrectly, and is sitting cockeyed? What about exterior features? Does there appear to be recent work on the vehicle, especially ones involving the sheet metal? External piping or sprinklers that might suggest a chemical weapon? Are there external wires hanging below? Obvious attempts to increase the load-bearing capacity of the vehicle?

Don’t assume because someone is in the car that things must be more along the lines of a person who doesn’t believe that parking lots apply to them. Overseas, victim-operated improvised explosive devices are a common tactic. How are they reacting to your approach? Disdain over an impending ticket? Relief that the calvary has arrived? Or fear and excitement? What are their hands doing? Have they used a coat or blanket to conceal something bulky? If the driver is operating a commercial vehicle, do they have a lack of common knowledge regarding vehicle operations or legalities (log books, driving laws)?

At this point, like any other criminal case, you should have enough clues to build your argument that something is wrong, or deal with the call as a traffic problem. But what do you do if think it IS a bomb?

That will have to come next time!

About the author

Shawn Hughes is an often controversial veteran Patrol Officer and Bomb Technician who now works for a Federal agency, but still consults for various agencies and private corporations when he isn’t writing or teaching. His articles have been published in three countries on two continents. He's written for the majority of law enforcement publications in the US, including the NTOA’s Tactical Edge, the IABTI’s Detonator, SWAT, Police, and others. His second book, on obtaining a job in Law Enforcement, is out now, with a third on lock technology in development. He can be reached at srh@esper.com .
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