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MSNBC Home » U.S. News » Highlights

Police chiefs bolster policy on suicide bombers

International group says officers should shoot suspect in the head

By Sari Horwitz
The Washington Post
Updated: 3:21 a.m. ET Aug. 4, 2005

WASHINGTON - The International Association of Chiefs of Police, which represents the heads of police departments in the United States and across the world, has issued new guidelines saying that officers who confront a suicide bomber should shoot the suspect in the head.

The recommendations, the first from a major police organization to deal with the realities of a post-Sept. 11 world, take a more aggressive posture than typical lethal-force guidelines. The guidelines were published July 8 -- about two weeks before the London police, acting on a similar policy, fatally shot an innocent Brazilian seven times in the head because they mistook him for a suicide bomber.

The National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board is developing the first national protocol for response to suicide bombers and is also recommending to police bomb squads nationwide that if a suspect is wearing a suicide bomb, an officer who needs to use deadly force should not shoot near the bomb.

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American police officers and federal agents typically have been authorized to use deadly force if lives are in imminent danger. But since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the definition of imminent danger has changed, prompting law enforcement officials to rethink the rules of engagement.

"There is not a responsible chief or head of a law enforcement agency in this country who isn't now pondering the dilemma a suicide bomber presents to their officers," said U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, who became the first chief in the nation to adopt a shoot-to-kill policy if his officers are confronted with a suicide bomber.

After the July 7 attacks on the London transit system by suicide bombers, the international police chiefs organization produced a detailed training guide for dealing with suicide bombers for its 20,000 law enforcement members. It recommends that if an officer needs to use lethal force to stop someone who fits a certain behavioral profile, the officer should "aim for the head" to kill the person instantly and prevent the setting off of a bomb if one is strapped to the person's chest.

Looking out for 'multiple anomalies'
The police organization's behavioral profile says such a person might exhibit "multiple anomalies," including wearing a heavy coat or jacket in warm weather or carrying a briefcase, duffle bag or backpack with protrusions or visible wires. The person might display nervousness, an unwillingness to make eye contact or excessive sweating. There might be chemical burns on the clothing or stains on the hands. The person might mumble prayers or be "pacing back and forth in front of a venue."

The police group's guidelines also say the threat to officers does not have to be "imminent," as police training traditionally teaches. Officers do not have to wait until a suspected bomber makes a move, another traditional requirement for police to use deadly force. An officer just needs to have a "reasonable basis" to believe that the suspect can detonate a bomb, the guidelines say.

Last year, Gainer retrained his officers to shoot to kill when faced with a suspected suicide bomber who is uncooperative and refuses to stop and be searched. Other law enforcement officials say they are debating the issue and may follow his lead if there is a suicide bombing in this country.

"I can guarantee you that if we have, God forbid, a suicide bomber in a big city in the United States, 'shoot to kill' will be the inevitable policy," said Miami Police Chief John F. Timoney in an interview. "It's not a policy we choose lightly, but it's the only policy."

International lessons
In Israel and the United Kingdom, countries with a history of confronting terrorist violence, the police have adopted a national policy of shooting a suspected suicide bomber in the head to prevent the detonation of a suicide vest. The British order became public last week after the shooting of the Brazilian.

"I really empathize with the British authorities," said Gainer, who is responsible for protecting 535 members of Congress, their staff members and visitors to the U.S. Capitol. "It's a Hobson's choice. How do you control someone you think has a suicide belt on? But what are the consequences of shooting someone, who, because of behavioral profiles, looks and acts like a suicide bomber but turns out isn't?"

Assistant FBI Director Michael A. Mason, who oversees the Washington Field Office, demonstrated the difficulty of the split-second decision with a hypothetical situation: A man in a heavy coat on a hot Washington afternoon heads up the steps of a Smithsonian museum, where a group of children is standing. Someone yells that the man has explosives. Mason identifies himself as an FBI agent and screams for the man to stop, but the man ignores him.

"What do you do?" Mason asked. "I am instantly between a rock and a hard place."

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