Biological/Chemical Terrorism and SWAT Response
By Chief of Police Bernard C. Parks & Captain Michael R. Hillmann


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.

With the advent of year 2000, SWAT is challenged with the potential for response to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) incidents. 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) 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 and unrealistic, and therefore set them aside. Today, with enhanced technology, the electronic media, doomsday cults and graphic real world events, it is 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 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, 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, assuming 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 catastrophic 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, and initiated rescue, evacuation measures, 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 the improved accessibility of the FBI, local responders will be first on scene and required to immediately deal with the problem. Local law enforcement must not lose sight of the fact that their preliminary actions will dramatically influence 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.
  • Quarantined civilians, police and fire personnel may require control, transportation, confinement and interview.
  • Crowd control of exposed individuals inside a contaminated perimeter will be required.
  • Perimeters may include criminal subjects trapped inside.
  • A telephonic or written threat accompanied by a suspicious package indicating that it contains a biological/chemical agent dispersal device.
  • Numerous casualties, including initial responders, spread over a wide area with potential for additional contagion.
  • Triage may be ongoing.
  • Intense media interest.
  • Adverse and changing 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 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.
  • Law enforcement control of persons moving through decontamination lines established by fire and health services.
  • The apprehension of criminal subjects will be a priority.
  • Locations where evidence of hazardous materials has been identified will require tactical personnel to secure it and investigators to conduct the proper follow-up (search/arrest warrants).
  • 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, 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 entities possess technical expertise in their specialized field. However, having no training in tactics, they 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:

  1. SWAT and/or other tactical units specially trained to operate in Mission Oriented Protective Posture equipment (MOPP-4).
  2. SWAT should be prepared to accompany non-law enforcement personnel into contaminated areas where there is potential for confronting suspects and to control contaminated persons. The control of contaminated persons 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.
  3. 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.
  4. SWAT should be prepared to respond to high-risk warrant service operations at the direction of the Unified Command. Early on, information may be developed that requires immediate follow-up investigation to other locations, either inside or outside of 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.
  5. The identification, marking, preservation, and custody of evidence inside contaminated areas.

It is important to note that the FBI, as the lead law enforcement agency, will direct all follow-up investigations. This will call for careful planning, including a coordinated, joint agency response. LLEA and SWAT’s role will be to perform high-risk search and arrest operations of well-armed individuals who may possess hazardous chemicals, biological agents, etc. Such operations would require SWAT to function in cumbersome protective clothing.

The relationship between 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, clad in protective clothing, armed with specialized weapons, and properly trained in dealing with 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 a review of several recent incidents specifying an anthrax threat, where no live spores were found, it was noted that potentially contaminated and displaced persons were quite upset about being "inconvenienced" with detention and quarantine procedures.

What about the control of uncooperative, contaminated subject(s) 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?

At the outset, peace officers should be acquainted with the law as it relates to the lawful detention of subjects for "quarantine" as directed by local health officials. Most states only address the authority for peace officers to lawfully detain persons in situations involving unusual or suspicious activity relating to criminal activity, and not based solely on a public safety or health threat. 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.

As to force, it is recommended that every effort should be used to avoid a physical altercation with any contaminated subject. It should be considered that any control method employed that results in the need for medical attention could first require decontamination. Reality dictates that force may have to be used to control uncooperative individuals. Existing force methods, including firm grip, control-holds, and batons, may not always be practical because of protective clothing worn by law enforcement. A team takedown technique that uses multiple officers against a single subject may be appropriate to quickly reduce the potential for injury and/or self-contamination. Generally, the expeditious use of restraining devices will quickly establish control over the situation.

Finally, nothing in any of these scenarios would prevent a peace officer from the 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

The millennium poses new challenges for all of society. 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 with evacuation, decontamination lines, and recovery of evidence within contaminated areas.

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

Biological and chemical terrorism is a reality today, and law enforcement must meet its obligation to maintain public safety. SWAT plays a significant role in biological and chemical terrorism response. Training and preparation must be implemented prior to a WMD occurrence. Only then will our response be appropriate, efficient and, most importantly, conducted as safely as possible for all involved.


18 USC, Section 2332a – Weapons of Mass Destruction (a) Any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas, bomb, grenade, rocket having a propellant charge of more than 4 ounces, or a missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than ¼ ounce, or mine or device similar to the above; (b) Poison gas; (c) Any weapon involving a disease organism; or (D) Any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life.

For the purposes of this discussion, WMD will include response to biological and chemical agents only.

International Terrorism: Trends and Potentialities, Brian Michael Jenkins, March 1976, Superterrorism: The Prospects For Mass Murder And Mass Hostage Situations; "High Technology Terrorism and Surrogate War: The Impact of New Technology on Low-Level Violence", Brian Michael Jenkins, January 1975.

Two members of the SLA killed Marcus Foster, a school superintendent in Oakland, CA with allegedly, cyanide-tipped bullets, Trends and Potentialities, Brian Michael Jenkins, March 1976, Superterrorism: The Prospects For Mass Murder And Mass Hostage Situations.

Aum Shinrikyo Cult, Tokyo, Japan subway rail incident, March 20, 1995, 12 dead, 5,500 injured – SARIN Nerve Agent – attempted assassination of the Japanese Police Chief.

Larry Wayne Harris and William Leavitt, February 1998, arrested Las Vegas Nevada in possession of suspected anthrax (previously arrested for attempted manufacture of botulism in Ohio).

According to Special Agent Kevin Miles, FBI LA, (WMD Coordinator), Since October 1998, there have been 58 anthrax threats nationwide; 25 were in the LA FBI Office region.

A biological chemical incident is defined as "any event which, by the intentional release or use of a hazardous material, may cause mass casualties"; FBI Chemical/Biological Terrorism Seminar, "The Future Challenge to U.S. Law Enforcement", February 6, 1996

Unified Command is a procedure used at incidents which allows all agencies with geographical, legal or functional responsibility to establish a common set of incident objectives and strategies and a single Incident Action Plan – Law Enforcement Guide for Emergency Operations, 1998 Edition, State of California, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Also known as the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act or Nunn-Lugar (Army Chemical Review - Military Support to Civilian Emergency Responders, January 1999, p. 27).

FBI’s role in Federal Response to the Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Statement of Robert Blitzer, Chief, Domestic Terrorism/Counter-terrorism Planning Section, Federal Bureau of Investigation, November 4, 1997.

Emergency Response to Terrorism, Basic Concepts, Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1998.

The Threat of Chemical and Biological Weapons, Janet Reno, Attorney General, April 22, 1998, before the Select Committee on Intelligence, United States Senate.

The FBI has implemented a WMD Operations Unit, which functions broadly in coordinating national response to WMD and plays a critical role in threat assessment.

Evacuation of a large number of individuals might not always be the best course of action depending upon a situation. Leaving persons in place (i.e., high-rise buildings) or providing protective sheltering may alleviate law enforcement crowd control and/or transportation problems.

Action Planning, Law Enforcement Guide for Emergency Operations, 1998 Edition, State of California, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, p. 18.

MOPP-4 includes Battle Dress Overgarment (BDO), M40A1 Protective Mask w/hood, rubber over boots gloves and inserts.

It is recommended that SWAT and/or other tactical units consider Level-A protective clothing as non-tactical, whereas MOPP-4 equipment should be used to support tactical operations. The restrictions are based on the limitations of movement in Level-A suits.

Decontamination terminology utilized to describe zoning of the decontamination line. The Hot Zone – the location of release and any areas to which hazardous substances have migrated or are likely to migrate in hazardous concentrations; the Warm Zone – located between the Hot and Cold Zones or uncontaminated area of the site; the Cold Zone or Support Zone – command functions and support operations are carried out here – U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Countermeasures Course Handbook – 1999.

With regard to the decontamination process, non-law enforcement personnel should not be held accountable for control of armed suspects, especially terrorists. Fire department, medical and health service personnel generally have little regard for evidence, as their mission priorities are quite different.

EPA guidelines for clothing protection involving hazardous material exposure; Level-A - fully encapsulated with SCBA; Level-B - same respiratory as "A", less protection for skin; Level-C - same level of protection for skin as "B", less respiratory protection; Level-D – no respiratory, no skin protection.

Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989).

Los Angeles County Code, Title 11 Health and Safety and Title 12, Environmental Protection (1987/1988), Section 11.02.050 Arrests for violations – Penal Code provisions adopted.

The use of a chemical irritant or electrical control device could exacerbate an already bad situation and bring heavy criticism to the agency that employs such devices under these