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7 patrol-level tips for spotting terrorist activity

Below are just a few strategies patrol-level officers can implement — regardless of your rank, experience or location — to better prepare and protect yourself and your community for the possibility of terrorist activity:

[Tips provided by Cliff Mariani, a retired NYPD and counter-terrorism researcher. He is the author of Terrorism Prevention & Response]

  • Stay alert for “routine” crimes that can serve as red flags to possible terrorist planning.

Vast quantities of dangerous and deadly chemicals (which could be diverted from manufacturing, transportation, storage and sales facilities for a chemical warfare attack) are lawfully used in the manufacture of common products. Prowling incidents, burglaries, thefts, missing inventory, suspicious new applicants for employment, etc. are ‘red flag’ events that require immediate investigation.

If any of the following products are produced, stored or sold in large quantities in your patrol sector, pay special attention to the facility while on patrol: bleaching products, chlorine products, cleaning solutions, crowd/riot control sprays, disinfectants, drain cleaners, dyes, fertilizers, fumigation products, fungicides, galvanizing solutions, herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, metal polishes, organic chemicals, pharmaceuticals, photographic solutions, plastics/polymers, solvents, weed killers.

  • Develop information-sharing relationships with local merchants, landlords and manufacturers that can yield quick alerts to suspicious persons and behavior.

Ask merchants to remain alert for inexplicable purchasing anomalies (i.e. large purchases of potentially harmful products). Ask manufacturers to keep you abreast of any out-of-the-ordinary occurrences at their plants or within their staff that may be worthy of focus. Ask landlords to stay alert for tenants and/or tenant behavior that may give them pause. Alert citizens can provide tremendous strength to a counter-terrorism awareness campaign.

  • Make sure you have established a family plan.

In a terrorist emergency, your first thought will likely be the safety of your family. In order to bolster your confidence in their ability to act as you would desire in an emergency situation and to help you stay focused on your primary law enforcement responsibilities, be sure to develop and rehearse an emergency plan with your spouse and, when appropriate, your children. Where should they go in an emergency? Who are they to call? Should they try to contact you? Should they expect that you will contact them? What should they NOT do? Prior planning will give you-and them-the confidence needed to remain calm and focused and to take the steps necessary to remain safe.

  • Mentally prepare yourself for a mass emergency situation to better ensure that your emotional response to a potentially unthinkable situation will be appropriate.

Mass confusion and fear are two extremely powerful weapons that can quickly surface in an attack. As a law enforcement officer in a leadership position, you are responsible for controlling both the actions and reactions of yourself and those you protect. A consistent and controlled regime of If/Then Thinking will enhance your ability to act quickly, confidently and calmly in any emergency and stand firm to help calm those around you. Mental pre-planning can serve to disarm the weapons of fear and confusion.

  • Be sure that you and your departmental leaders are pre-trained to know which specialized agencies and personnel to contact for support in a variety of emergency situations and that you are quickly able to do so.

Be sure that you and your entire agency have immediate access to a field directory of phone numbers for relevant support agencies on all levels, including all federal agencies. This can be ensured by carrying a “Terrorism Prevention and Response Pocket Reference” (link) or listing all relevant contacts for quick reference in your PDA or address book.

  • Continually identify potential targets of all kinds in your area, pay particular attention to activities surrounding those areas and remember that no observation that tweaks curiosity or concern is too small.

To effectively do that, Mariani advises officers to “think like a terrorist” and to get outside assistance when necessary. “Target designation is an imperative function for the patrol division of every police department,” he writes. “In order to fulfill this mandate, survey your patrol area for the obvious terrorist targets, as well as for those which you believe would present an opportunity unique to your territory. Some targets, however, may not be readily apparent. Specialized assistance may be required. Routinely consult with your local F.B.I. Special Agent in charge of your counter-terrorist operations about possible threats and targets in your area.”

Potential high-risk sites may include strategic targets (military bases, national guard facilities, major defense contractors, any nuclear power-related facility, etc.), symbolic targets (monuments, landmarks, military recruiting stations, financial epicenters, etc.), government offices, public safety buildings, hospitals, heavily trafficked commercial areas, infrastructure (bridges, tunnels, highways, dams, etc.) high-profile special events, densely populated entertainment venues, large industrial plants, communications centers, coastal entry and exit points, petroleum plants and other potentially explosive areas.

Once a potential target is identified, encourage the property owner or manager to meet with your crime prevention unit or other relevant units to discuss strategies for attack prevention and emergency response plans.

Side note: After 9-11, Hollywood screenwriters were tapped for their creative abilities in an effort to imagine potential attack scenarios so they could be considered and planned against. You may be able to do the same thing on a local level if you are aware of creative talent in your area (novelists, screenwriters, etc.) who may provide help in developing possible scenarios for strategy development.

  • Take terrorist activity reports seriously, take personal initiative to stay current on counter-terrorism strategies you can implement on patrol and steel yourself against creeping complacency and desensitization to the topic of terrorism defense.

Time can be both a friend and an enemy. If it is used to prepare for action, it can be priceless. If it’s allowed to corrode your tactical edge, it can be extremely dangerous.

Scott Buhrmaster is Vice President of Training and Editorial for, which was awarded the “Quill & Badge Award” for Excellence in Journalism by the International Association of Police Unions. He is also the Publisher of Police Marksman magazine and has served as Contributing Editor for Law Officer magazine. He has been a member of the law enforcement training community since 1989, when he began work as Director of Research with Calibre Press, Inc., producers of The Street Survival Seminar.

Throughout his tenure at Calibre, Buhrmaster was involved with virtually every aspect of the company’s officer survival training efforts, from the planning, creation and marketing of the organization’s award-winning textbooks and videos to developing and securing training content for the Seminar. In 1995, he was named Director of the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline®, an Internet-based officer survival training service he helped found. In less than five years, Newsline readership grew from 25 officers to more than 250,000 in 26 countries, making it one of the most popular training vehicles in law enforcement history. His efforts now focus on providing training and information to the nearly 400,000 officers worldwide who visit every month.

Prior to joining Police1, Buhrmaster, who also serves on the National Advisory Board of the Force Science Research Center and stands as an active member of the American Society for Law Enforcement Training and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, was President of The Buhrmaster Consulting Group, an international consulting practice for the law enforcement training sector and the publishing industry. Scott may be reached at