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John McArdle, ROLLCALL STAFF


"Shoot to kill." "Aim for the head." Yes, those are options available to Capitol Police officers confronted with a suicide bomber. But those are not the only options, said Chief Terrance Gainer, who believes the public gets too caught up in such buzz phrases.

The Capitol Police adopted a specific policy for dealing with suicide bombers in early 2004, one allowing the use of deadly force. But Gainer said this week that "people should not be misled that when an officer comes across a person who is a suicide bomber that the officer is just going to immediately shoot them in the head. When it comes to the use of deadly force, officers make those decisions based on the totality of the circumstances and based on their training."

Officers are taught to understand "the dynamics of what a suicide bomber could lay on you vis-à-vis a determination of the circumstances," he said.

In the wake of last month's car bomb scare just a stone's throw from the Capitol and ongoing debate in England over police "shoot to kill" policies when it comes to suicide bombers, the Capitol Police chief explained how his agency's training has changed in the nearly two years since adopting a policy on responding to suicide bombers.

"What the policy did was up the ante. Officers are entitled to use the amount of force that would defeat the force of the perpetrator," Gainer said.

Some things, such as enhanced weapons and shooting range training, are among the more obvious changes. While in most hostile encounters law enforcement officers are instructed to aim for the center body mass of a suspect, using that tactic would be inappropriate against suicide bombers because a shot to the chest may inadvertently set off the explosive or could only wound a bomber and allow the suspect time to set off a device. Thus officers are taught to aim for the head.

But Gainer said that weapons training is only a small part of overall suicide bomber preparation.

"Some conversations way overplay 'shoot to kill' and 'head shot,'"he said. "The bigger part is understanding what our obligations are when it comes to coming across an individual who might be a suicide bomber."

Gainer said each officer is given training on how to recognize the usual traits and characteristics of suicide bombers. Officers are taught that, once a potential suicide bomber is identified, they must sound the alarm, protect the public and gain control of the individual, all while assessing the threat level.

Gainer first saw the need for developing a specific policy for dealing with suicide bombers two years ago, when he served on the terrorism committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. After discovering that the organization had never developed such a policy Gainer realized that "we hadn't honed in on the uniqueness" of such a situation.

While some worldwide police departments, including London's Metropolitan Police, had developed specific suicide bomber polices, the guidelines that Gainer developed for the Capitol Police, which were enacted in February 2004, were among the first created by a U.S. police force. Indeed, the Capitol Police plan helped guide the policy eventually released by the IACP in July, coincidentally just days before four suicide bombers boarded three subway carriages and a commuter bus in London and killed 52 people.

While the text of Capitol Police policy was not available, the IACPpolicy states that "officers should be reminded that the law does not require that the threat of death or serious injury to be imminent, as is sometimes noted in police use-of-force policies. ... One need not wait until a suicide bomber makes a move or takes other action potentially sufficient to carry out the bombing when officers have reasonable basis to believe that the suspect has the capability to detonate the bomb. The threat of such use is, in most instances, sufficient justification to employ deadly force.

"If lethal force is justified, all shots should be aimed at the bomber's head,"specifically, at the tip of the nose when facing the bomber, at the point of the ear canal from the side, or "about one inch below the base of the skull" from behind, the guidelines state. And in an instance where officers attempt to hold down a suicide bomber without success, the training guidelines state that a shot to the head at close range may be the only option.

"Our common goal was to lay down a marker and model that every department could look to," Gainer said of the two policies. "Their policy and our policy are a standard. They are not the only standards but they are a straw man that any department can look to."

But some aspects of police suicide bomber policies have been controversial, especially since the killing of an innocent Brazilian man by London police officers two weeks after the July bombings. At the end of last month in London, the first public debate was held in which Scotland Yard defended its tactics against criticism.

But Gainer is confident that his department's guidelines for dealing with suicide bombers is in the best interest of those who visit, work on and guard Capitol Hill.

"I wouldn't hesitate to change any policy if it looks like we are pursuing a policy that isn't in good public order, but I haven't seen that yet," he said.
 
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