Biological/Chemical Terrorism and SWAT Response

By: Captain Michael R. Hillmann, Los Angeles Police Department



Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) as a discipline, has long been recognized as "forward thinking" in resolution of barricaded subjects, high-risk warrant service, hostage rescue, personnel training and innovative tactical technology. Special Weapons And Tactics is, and always will be, the specialized entity tasked with response to critical incidents beyond the capabilities of conventional police resources.

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) as they relate to chemical and biological threats are not new. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, terrorism experts and those of us around long enough to remember the Black Panther Party and Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) et al, will recall several "real-world" scenarios that involved the potential use of biological agents to contaminate water supplies of large urban cities. In those early days we were reluctant to discuss such threats, since we were not prepared to deal with them. We looked upon the majority of these scenarios as "remote", unrealistic, and therefore, set them aside. Today, with enhanced technology, the electronic media, doomsday cults and graphic real world events etc., it should be obvious that the threat of biological and chemical terrorism is here to stay. Given the recent numerous biological/anthrax threats that have occurred nationally, there is little doubt that SWAT will again be pressed into service.

It is the intent of this article to specifically address biological/chemical terrorism (WMD) and SWAT response, to include operational, tactical, health and use-of-force issues. It is not the focus of this article to identify the types of biological, chemical, or precursor agents, liquids, toxins, etc., or discuss threat assessment methods and/or global WMD incidents.

Before identifying SWAT’s role in biological and chemical terrorism, it is first necessary to establish a basic understanding of which public safety entities may become involved in a WMD incident.

Local fire, law enforcement, and health agencies will be the initial responders, and will assume active roles in a Unified Command structure. Supporting agencies, via mutual aid, will include county and state resources. Concurrently, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) resources will respond and ultimately share command.

Federal Law and the Lead Agency

The following identifies the lead Federal law enforcement agency, as well as the applicable laws relating to domestic WMD crimes:

"Any criminal threat or use of WMD against the U.S., its population, interests, or critical infrastructure will be considered an act of terrorism. Consistent with mandates set out in Presidential Decision Directive 39 (PDD-39), existing and newly created statutory requirements, the Antiterrorism and Intelligence Authorization Acts, and the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction of 1996, we have improved our ability to deal with those who may be planning to commit these heinous crimes.

Established doctrine, including PDD-39, identifies the FBI’s domestic role in the operational response to WMD terrorism. It is important to recognize that the potential impact of WMD terrorism transcends any one agency’s ability to fully manage the necessary response to such an incident. The effects of a WMD terrorist attack may be castrophic and will require a UNIFIED approach among all resources in cooperation with federal, state and local governments for definitive success."

Furthermore, PDD-39, as described above, includes two basic components. Crisis Management, which is led by the Department of Justice (through the FBI) and includes measures to identify, acquire and plan the use of resources needed to anticipate, prevent and resolve a threat or act of terrorism. Consequence Management, on the other hand, is coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in support of state and local governments. Support provided by FEMA includes measures to protect public health and safety, restore essential government services and provide emergency relief to governments, businesses and individuals affected by the consequences of an act of terrorism.

Initial Response

Presidential Decision Directive 39 clearly identifies the FBI as the "lead Federal law enforcement agency". The reality is, Federal response is not immediate and generally occurs after fire, police and local health officials have already established containment, initiated rescue, evacuation and a preliminary investigation.

Given current emphasis on the WMD problem, the FBI has developed local office WMD Coordinators to rapidly respond to domestic terrorism incidents. FBI WMD Coordinators once on-scene, will provide threat assessments, coordinate federal response and participate in the Unified Incident Command. Even with well-coordinated and trained members of the FBI, local responders in all probability will be required to deal with the problem immediately. Local law enforcement must not lose sight of the fact that their preliminary actions will dramatically impact the resolution of the incident.

Local Law Enforcement Agencies (LLEA) – Initial Responder Considerations

Consider the following hypothetical conditions:

  • Generally, local law enforcement (in particular, field forces), fire services, and health services will have already been deployed to the scene and will have established a Unified Incident Command.
  • A threat assessment will be underway.
  • Public safety will be given the highest priority.
  • Traffic and economic disruption will occur.
  • Fire/rescue entities will have identified the situation as involving hazardous materials and/or dangerous precursor chemical agents, possibly, necessitating evacuation.
  • A large perimeter, potentially containing contaminated persons in need of evacuation, decontamination and preliminary interview may be present.
  • Quarantined civilians, police and fire personnel may require control, transportation, confinement and interview.
  • Crowd control of trapped individuals inside a contaminated perimeter will be required.
  • Perimeters may include criminal subjects trapped inside.
  • A telephonic/written threat, accompanied by a suspicious package, indicating a potential biological/chemical agent dispersal device.
  • Numerous casualties spread over a wide area with potential for additional contagion.
  • Triage may be on-going.
  • Numerous dead bodies (including initial responders) may be present.
  • Intense media interest.
  • Adverse weather and wind conditions may impact control efforts.
  • Adverse time of day (nightfall, rush hour etc.) may impact control efforts.
  • Fire department, health services, bomb squad and hazardous material units, et al, will be working on-scene with separate, operational and investigative priorities.
  • Collection of evidence, continuity of evidence and crime scene control will require priority tasking.
  • Control of personnel moving through decontamination lines established by fire and health services may require law enforcement presence.
  • The apprehension of criminal subjects will be a priority.
  • Identified locations containing evidence of hazardous materials connected with the current incident will require investigative follow-up and tactical personnel (search/arrest warrants) to secure.
  • Discovery of potential secondary devices inside a contaminated perimeter may require additional personnel.
  • The situation will ALWAYS be "personnel" intensive and require immediate alteration of on-duty law enforcement resources (Tactical Alert, Mobilization, etc.).

All of the above are time-sensitive and time-competitive factors that will need to be immediately addressed by the Unified Incident Command Team. These factors will form the foundation for a consolidated (multi-jurisdictional) Incident Action Plan. Regardless of decision making and planning, one thing is for sure, the aforementioned conditions will occur well before state or federal resources arrive on-scene.

The issue arises, where does SWAT fit in to the scheme of things?

SWAT and/or Specialized Tactical Units - Operations and Tactics

During biological/chemical terrorist incidents, local fire, health services, hazardous material units and bomb squads will feverishly be attempting to control and mitigate the consequences of the incident. These non-law enforcement and law enforcement entities will be minimally concerned about suspect apprehension, crowd control, evacuation, evidence collection, crime scene control, follow-up search/arrest warrant service and detention of quarantined persons.

SWAT and/or specialized unit capabilities should include:

  • SWAT and/or other tactical units specially trained to operate in Mission Oriented Protective Posture equipment (MOPP-4).
  • SWAT should be prepared to accompany non-law enforcement personnel into contaminated areas where there is potential for confronting suspects and control of contaminated persons. The control of contaminated persons inside a perimeter who refuse to cooperate with fire department or health services personnel is a serious issue, and the potential for such situations is not only possible but probable. The Department of Defense did a superb job in the development of MOPP-4 equipment to provide the modern-day soldier protection against chemical/biological agents on the battlefield, but not necessarily in use of force situations. LLEA SWAT, and/or tactical units, should have already initiated "arrest and control" training in MOPP-4 equipment.
  • SWAT or other tactical unit personnel should be strategically positioned in the Hot, Warm and Cold Zones of the decontamination line to assist fire department and health services personnel with security, control of potential suspects, and recovery of evidence.
  • SWAT should be prepared to respond to high-risk warrant service operations at the direction of the Unified Command. Information may be developed early on in an incident that requires immediate follow-up investigation to other locations either inside/outside a contaminated area. Although, health services, hazardous material and fire department personnel are Level-A equipped they are not armed law enforcement personnel, and are legally unable to serve arrest and search warrants. Recognizing that in some jurisdictions limited peace officer status may apply to fire services, such persons are not trained in high-risk, warrant service operations.
  • The identification, marking, preservation and custody of evidence inside contaminated areas.

It is important to note that follow-up investigations will be directed by the lead law enforcement agency, the FBI, and will call for careful planning, including a coordinated, joint agency response. The point here is that LLEA SWAT may be required to perform a high-risk search/arrest warrant operation involving hazardous chemicals, biological agents, etc., involving well-armed individuals. Such operations could require SWAT to function in cumbersome protective clothing.

The bottom line regarding biological and chemical terrorism and SWAT is that many tactical situations will develop quickly where public safety is jeopardized. These incidents will require a specialized tactical law enforcement component to supplement public safety entities. LLEA SWAT personnel who are physically fit, armed with specialized weapons and properly trained in protective clothing, hazardous materials and biological/chemical agents, will greatly assist in overall incident resolution.

Use of Force

There is no exception to the law or an agency’s policy involving force just because of a WMD scenario. Use of force must always be "objectively reasonable" under the circumstances and consistent with the law. During review of several recent, specific "anthrax threat" incidents (no live spores present), it was noted that potentially contaminated and displaced persons were not delighted about being inconvenienced because of their detention and "quarantine".

What about the control of uncooperative, contaminated subject at the scene? Based upon health department direction to law enforcement to "quarantine" persons exposed to biological/chemical agents, how much force should be used to prevent persons from leaving the scene and potentially contaminating others?

To begin with, peace officers should be acquainted with the law as it relates to the lawful detention of subjects for "quarantine" at the direction of local health officials. Most states do not specifically address the authority for peace officers to lawfully detain persons based solely on a public safety or health threat, only those situations involving unusual or suspicious activity relating to criminal activity. Such public safety law is usually reserved for the local Director of Health Services.

It is recommended that if current state/local law does not authorize peace officers to detain persons for public health or safety reasons involving biological and/or chemical terrorism, then obvious legislative amendments should be sought.

In regard to force, it is recommended that every effort should be utilized to avoid confrontation with any contaminated subject. Consideration should be given to the fact that any control method utilized requiring medical attention could require decontamination first. Reality dictates, however, force may have to be used to control individuals who are uncooperative. Existing force methods, i.e., firm grip, control-holds and baton, may not always be practical because of protective clothing worn by law enforcement. Team take-downs, SWARM, etc., may be appropriate to quickly reduce the potential for injury and/or self-contamination. Generally, the expeditious use of restraining devices (flexcuffs, etc.) will quickly establish control over the situation..

Finally, nothing in any of these scenarios would prevent a peace officer from use of deadly force to protect himself or others from an immediate life-endangering threat. In any situation, only reasonable force based on the circumstances can be utilized.

Summary and Recommendations

It is predictable that terrorism will continue to flourish in the areas of biological/chemical terrorism. It is further believed LLEA SWAT will have a significant role in response to these incidents and should already be training to meet that challenge.

Recommended SWAT training should include:

  • Orientation to WMD, biological and chemical nerve agents and toxins.
  • Orientation to Level-A with specific emphasis on MOPP-4 protective equipment.
  • Individual and team communications (both hand signals and electronic communication devices).
  • Self-decontamination procedures.
  • Arrest and control methods (including handcuffing) in MOPP-4.
  • Orientation with chemical detection equipment in MOPP-4.
  • Team movement in MOPP-4.
  • Firearms manipulation and qualification in MOPP-4.
  • Field Training Exercises (FTX) requiring SWAT (MOPP-4) to assist non-law enforcement entities inside contaminated areas with evacuation, decontamination lines and recovery of evidence.

Given the current Federal assistance programs available to LLEA regarding biological and chemical terrorism, it is highly recommended that law enforcement attempt to procure and maintain the necessary protective clothing and equipment (MOPP-4) for SWAT.

Hopefully, after review, it is apparent that SWAT has a significant role in biological and chemical terrorism, and that we shouldn’t wait until an incident occurs to start training. It should already be underway.



About the Author

Captain Michael Hillmann is the commanding officer of LAPD’s West Los Angeles Area. His 33 years with the LAPD include assignments to patrol, Anti-Terrorist Division, and the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. He has written articles for a wide variety of publications and presented in-depth courses on tactics and emergency response to law enforcement, the military, and private industry. He is widely regarded as one of the premier experts in emergency response and tactics.





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