“Fraught With Perils”… But What’s Better? Experts Speak Out on New IACP Suicide-Bomber Guidelines

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Part 2 of a 2-part Series

Counter-terrorism expert Robert Bunker, PhD, won’t take questions about the provocative recommendations he wrote for 2 recent publications from the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police about would-be suicide/homicide bombers and how police officers can best preemptively kill them.

Through an assistant, he declined to address inquiries from Force Science News, so we were unable to discuss with him the operational challenges and seemingly no-win dilemmas posed by some of his guidelines.

As described in detail in Part 1 of this series, Bunker’s core advice, delivered across 2 IACP Training Keys, encourages officers to shoot to kill suspected bomb carriers with rounds to the head. According to Bunker, this deadly force would be justifiable under “Federal laws and rulings” if you have a reasonable belief that a suspect is simply capable of detonating a bomb, without needing to wait for him or her to actually make a move or take “other action potentially sufficient to carry out the bombing.” The reports include a “Suicide Bomber Profile” to help officers identify likely offenders.

The full IACP reports can be accessed online – https://www.theiacp.org/resources/policy-center-resource/suicide-bombings

The tactical and decision-making guidelines, along with other elements of Bunker’s presentation, have profound implications for law officers, supervisors, trainers and administrators and for the communities they serve, according to police use-of-force experts consulted by Force Science News.

While commending the IACP for engaging a tough, complex topic before American law enforcement has yet had to deal with it face-to-face, the experts express concern that some of the recommendations set impossible skill standards for most street personnel, that they raise thornier legal questions and training dichotomies than the reports suggest, and that they call for operational policies and practices that may well strain the always dicey police-society relationship in dramatic new ways.

As one expert told us, “The drastic actions recommended would change the police mind-set about potentially lethal confrontations and may have unforeseen and unintended consequences.”


The Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato wants to hear your reactions to the issues raised by the IACP documents and the experts’ opinions.

  • As an LE professional, do you feel these guidelines will be adopted by your agency?
  • Will they be followed on the street?
  • Will your community accept them…as well as the errors of judgment they may lead to?
  • What might be better, if anything? Or are these simply the stark reality that law enforcers and civilians alike need to confront before the first suicide bomber explodes a payload here?


Meanwhile, here are reactions to Bunker’s guidelines and recommendations from prominent use-of-force authorities.

THOMAS AVENI–nationally known firearms instructor, frequent expert witness in police liability litigation, member of FSRC’s National Advisory Board and researcher, trainer and consultant for the Police Policy Studies Council:

“If we accept the premise that Middle East-style suicide bombings are about to debut here and that the way we currently police our streets is likely to be exploited by our enemies,” then some drastic changes undoubtedly are warranted. But the recommendations are “fraught with complexities and perils that may be unforeseen and cannot be understated,” Aveni fears.”

“When we start instructing police to profile people for head shots, we’re in a whole new world”–one that will require “altering the police mind-set” to encompass “adversaries who are soldiers in a war, as opposed to simply criminals. This is a major departure from the present police culture.”

Heavily burdened trainers “will have to interpret vast gray areas embedded in these guidelines, and then determine how to negotiate the conflict between traditional deadly force policies and practice” and what the suicide-bomber realities are said to call for.

For example, Bunker points out that traditionally trained center-mass shots may actually detonate a bomber’s explosives or may merely inflict nonfatal wounds, allowing the bombing mission to proceed. A head shot is the only reliable placement for instant de-animation.

Aveni agrees. “But I’ve trained thousands of cops, and I don’t think most have the skill to deliver a head shot” from a distance, especially with a handgun, which may be the only weapon immediately available in an unexpected encounter.

“The human skull is a fortified pillbox, mounted on a swivel, the neck,” Aveni says. “The head can move up and down and side-to-side freely and quickly when a threat is perceived.” (Indeed, according to Executive Director Dr. Bill Lewinski, the Force Science Research Center has documented that an unrestrained subject can move his head sideways 6 to 10 inches in as little as 1/10th of a second-”faster than a rifle bullet can travel 200 yards and faster than any officer could possibly react.”)

“Consequently,” Aveni says, “with a handgun, the most reliable means of effecting the recommended nasal-cavity shots, ear-canal shots or brain-stem shots is with the subject literally pinned down and immobilized by the officer. So much for ‘stand-off distances!’”

When a suspect is driving a vehicle, with a potentially far higher-capacity payload than an individual could pack personally, the Training Keys recommend that officers keep a “minimum safety distance [of] 660 feet in all directions.” (No ‘stand-off distance’ is recommended for bombers on foot.)

“This is roughly twice the distance that police precision riflemen–snipers–generally train for, and they are usually equipped with 12-16X scopes on precision .308 rifles,” Aveni explains. “In other words, only a mere handful of specially trained, exceptionally high-skilled police could even hope to successfully engage a threat at that range.”

In order to detect the various situational, physical and behavioral cues Bunker itemizes in his Suicide Bomber Profile, “an officer would have to be in close proximity to a suspect,” Aveni points out, “adding to the tactical dilemma.”

Moreover, the profile Bunker describes may lead to serious repercussions if an officer relies on it for deciding to use deadly force.

“The Training Keys suggest that a threat doesn’t need to be imminent to warrant deadly force, only that its use be objectively reasonable,” Aveni explains. “But if ‘objective reasonableness’ is predicated primarily on the rather broad, imprecise ‘profile,’ there’s a substantial probability that someone other than a suicide bomber will be shot here as has already happened in London.

“And if mistakes in judgment are made, given the Keys’ ‘shoot-to-kill’ recommendation, they aren’t likely to be mitigated with sophisticated medical care.”

Trainers, Aveni believes, “are going to be faced with a precarious dichotomy-needing to teach traditional use-of-force decision making versus a really radical departure for suspects fitting a suicide-bomber profile. This is uncharted territory. In an actual shooting, will things that seemed ‘reasonable’ in the moment be considered reasonable later?”

Essentially, he asserts, the IACP publications seem to be saying “if you reasonably believe there’s a threat, assassinate the guy. This will be a very, very difficult decision for a beat cop.”

Already law enforcement is coping with controversial and divisive “mistake-of-fact” shootings in criminal encounters. “Such shootings could rise substantially if these new protocols are implemented,” Aveni predicts, “and a disproportionate number of unarmed ethnic minorities are likely to be the casualties. We already know how volatile this can be.

“Police discretionary powers have been eroding in recent years. Yet there’s a tremendous amount of discretionary latitude–not to mention enormous performance expectation–inherent in [Bunker’s recommendations]. It’s unreasonable to expect agencies to have the wherewithal to try to train all their officers to the level this dramatic policy shift would require.

“It might be more prudent to train only your brightest and most capable officers and assign them to patrol your likeliest terrorist targets. But of course the Catch-22 to that approach is the high probability that untrained officers will be the ones who first encounter a guy with a bomb belt.”

WILLIAM EVERETT–prominent use-of-force trainer, an executive risk-and-litigation manager for an entity insuring hundreds of government agencies, and a member of FSRC’s National Advisory Board:

Bunker’s recommendations constitute “new and radical concepts for the police, the courts, the public and the people on juries judging police actions. The guidelines look like a war plan trying to be fitted into a civil jurisprudence system. They ask people to say, ‘We know that the police are now involved as gun-carrying soldiers in a war on terrorism and these are the rules for the war…but we’re still thinking of them as our friendly police department.’

“Is the change necessary? Yes. Can we get there easily and without angst? No.

“[Bunker’s] propositions are not irrational but they’re so radically different, it’s hard to know how we’ll react legally or societally if they are adopted.”

As an attorney and force trainer, Everett zeros in on Bunker’s “premise that under federal law cops are authorized to shoot to kill when they have reasonable basis to believe a person is carrying a bomb” and the implication that characteristics listed in the Suicide Bomber Profile could be a foundation for that reasonable belief.

Everett points out that his state–probably like others–requires a higher standard (probable cause) to believe a suspect will cause death or great bodily harm to others before the use of deadly force is justified. “States are free to create more restrictive rules than the Federal standard,” he warns. “If you’re thinking of adopting [Bunker’s] guidelines as an administrator, I’d make sure that your prosecutor knows about it and that it is compatible with the laws of your jurisdiction.”

Making a deadly force decision on the basis of the bomber profile in lieu of an identified threatening action seems to him a slippery slope. “Doing so, you take a position that here’s what a terrorist with a bomb may very well look like and because a suicide bomber is so dangerous to so many people, you don’t need the same degree of certainty you need for other deadly force transactions.

“If you shoot someone who exhibits 5 or 7 characteristics of a terrorist with a bomb, let’s say, the success of your decision is going to be determined when you strip away his shirt and find a bomb–or you just find chest hair.”

A different standard for reacting to potential suicide bombers may be realistic, Everett concedes, given the risk of letting a suspect go with a bomb that could kill a hundred people. “But look at the [mistaken assessment] incident in London and see how a wrong call can rock a nation and bring into question how the police ought to be doing business. People today don’t have a lot of tolerance for mistaken application of force that results in human death.

“I think society and the court system are going to expect a fair amount of documented training of officers regarding the characteristics of terrorists if cops are going to make split-second, life-and-death decisions based on those characteristics. More guidance and training needs to be developed not only in recognizing but in interpreting these characteristics to better distinguish those who exhibit some of the characteristics and are a threat versus those who have them but aren’t a danger.”

He points out the irony that currently we can’t apply a reasonable terrorist profile at our airports to determine who gets searched, yet Bunker proposes a profile that would guide officers in making life-and-death decisions.

Everett predicts that departments that “view themselves as likely to deal with terrorist bombers in the future are probably going to be putting resources into making [Bunker’s recommendations] operational through training. Departments that need to be on this cutting edge will tool themselves up to get there and discharge the job very responsibly. Agencies that don’t perceive themselves at risk are going to consider all this largely irrelevant. I don’t see it spreading across the country like Asp batons and Tasers.

“For the guidelines to be successfully operational, though, individual officers are going to have to feel morally satisfied–not just legally satisfied–that they have correctly identified a threat before they shoot to kill. Until they’ve been trained to a high level of confidence to sort out threats from nonthreats, there’s bound to be a high degree of hesitation.”

Everett praises the IACP’s reports for provoking discussion of where we should see the police in fighting terrorists domestically. “There are shortcomings and there are no-wins” in Bunker’s recommendations, he says. “But they should stir the passing, the imagination and the creativity to ask and answer, ‘How do we do better than this?’”

JEFF CHUDWIN–Chief of Olympia Fields (IL) P.D., president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Assn., a former prosecutor and a widely respected firearms and use-of-force instructor:

Philosophically, Chudwin does not see the IACP reports as much more than “simply a re-statement of everything we’ve known” about suicide/homicide bomber response.

“In every state, police unquestionably have lawful justification to use deadly force to prevent the murder of others by an offender. The highest imperative in law enforcement is to stop murder, and if an officer observes or has reason to believe that a person is about to commit murder or is in the process of doing so, the officer is justified in using deadly force to stop the threat. Every department policy I am aware of allows this. Otherwise, why would we be armed?

“As a matter of principle, it’s better that all suicide bombers die before they can detonate their explosives. They have to be stopped. The result of a failed response or a lack of response is likely to be mass murder.”

The problems lie with making Bunker’s key recommendations operational. “In practice, it’s not so simple on the street,” Chudwin admits.

Dealing successfully with any deadly threat, he explains, requires “the right officer in the right place at the right time with the right equipment, the right training and the right mind-set.” And therein lies the rub when it comes to suicide bombers.

Like Aveni, he’s convinced from experience that “the vast majority of police officers have neither the training nor capability” to accomplish proper head shots.

He suggests this as a test for yourself and fellow officers: Using a 6-in. paper plate to simulate the head, first fire from a stationary position and then add some movement, shooting from variable distances. Hit the center 4-in. portion. His officers practice this “at distances up to 15 yards and due to constant drilling have good success,” even with handguns (though results clearly illustrate the superiority of the rifle). “Take an officer not trained in this and you will see a very different result.”

It’s well established that the handgun is not the preferred weapon in a gunfight, especially if head shots are required. Emergency room doctors have estimated to Chudwin that handgun rounds to the head are “effective” (i.e., immediately incapacitating) only about half the time, “due to lack of penetration to the cranial vault. There must be an immediate shutdown of the central nervous system, and the only means of achieving this with equipment available to police is through the destruction of the brain.”

With cranial-vault penetration, rifle rounds come close to being 100% effective, and Chudwin believes every patrol officer should have an accurate center-fire long gun immediately accessible in his or her patrol car and be capable of “surgically delivering gunfire to the head.” Of course, many do not have this equipment or training, despite the fact that rifles are available to departments for less than $40 apiece through federally funded programs. “There are police administrators who have not equipped and trained their officers to defeat this kind of threat, and the time to do it is now to be ahead of the curve,” he says.

If you are already within close range of the would-be bomber and you have only a handgun, your best tactical option may be to move into the threat and make close-range or contact head shots to immediately stop the offender, Chudwin believes, even though closing distance makes you more vulnerable to the effects of any explosion.

The most difficult street problem will be identifying who must be stopped by use of deadly force, Chudwin says. From their traditional training, officers will want to issue a verbal challenge, engage in dialog or otherwise probe for more information to reassure themselves of the suspect’s dangerous status, but this can be counter-productive when distance and time are of the essence. “Just making an approach to a suspect may trigger the response you are trying to avoid or defeat,” he says. Even with a simple, unequivocal command like “Do not move!,” the offender can take action faster than an officer can react and “in the absence of a proactive use of force, you lose.”

If a mistake in judgment is made and a subject who turns out not to be a bomber is killed, timing will determine the consequences, Chudwin predicts. “If those officers in London had shot the unarmed suspect before the bombs had gone off in the subways, those officers might have ended up charged with unlawful homicide.

“As our society feels a greater danger, it will demand more from its law enforcement officers. Most often, we do not control events around us, we can only control our response to them. As administrators, trainers and street officers, we have to be process oriented, not ending oriented. Regardless of our best efforts and intentions, we cannot always achieve a good ending. If our process has integrity, is lawful and is within policy and we are true to the process, we can stand by what happens, no matter the ending.

“Whether the demands of society for increased protection will also allow for forgiveness when terrible mistakes occur, only time will tell.”

He urges his fellow LE executives to train their troops meaningfully for what he sees as a new reality. The world of the suicide bomber “is not the world I anticipated being chief of police in, it’s not a duty I thought I would be called for,” he says. “But here I am, and I stand ready to respond and fulfill that duty.”

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