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Made in America

Made in America

Greg Ferency / SWAT Digest

American law enforcement is seeing a whole new phenomenon erupt in the drug enforcement business. Over the past several years the explosion of clandestine methamphetamine labs has forced us into a whole new way of thinking and the way we do our jobs. Drug enforcement in general has adapted over the years to keep up with those involved in the drug culture. Narcs no longer are just growing out their hair and buying drugs on our streets. We have become full-fledged investigators along with counselors, tactical officers, surveillance experts (just to mention a few) and now with the advent of the meth lab –“pseudo-chemists”. When I started my law enforcement career in 1991 I would have looked at you crossed eyed if you told me I needed to know what a catalyst was, what reaction mixture was and the dangers of chemicals like hydrogen chloride gas, anhydrous ammonia and organic solvents. But now I do know all these things and much more in the way of chemistry because I have to.

Since May of 1999 my jurisdiction, which encompasses just over 110,000 people, has been exposed to over 550 methamphetamine labs. And this is just one medium sized county in Indiana. When we found our first meth lab in 1999 we thought we had found the goose that laid the golden egg. Our mindset was that here we have a “facility” capable of producing an unlimited amount of a schedule II controlled substance and it was lying at our feet. We thought this was a once in a career opportunity to see this type of lab and be involved in this type of investigation. Well, as you can see we are now at over 500 of these things and counting. Every year the total numbers of meth labs seized has increased with no particular end in sight.

Recognizing the dangers of the lab is first and foremost the most important issue for any police officer or first responder. Those involved with the methamphetamine culture bring a lot of baggage to the table in the law enforcement circle anyway, add the dangers of the lab itself and a whole new crop of issues develop right in front of our eyes.

Meth lab investigations differ from the standard drug case in one significant way. The lab itself can injure or kill the officers involved. With a cocaine case we may execute the search warrant, get our bad guys (and gals) in custody, high five and go back to the office to start the paper work. With the meth lab getting the suspects into custody is basically the easy part. We then switch roles and become Haz-Mat experts. The site must be secured, evaluated, assessed and dismantled (made safe). Any part of this process can cause a health risk to those involved. The investigating officers can be exposed to “dead air” environments and situation where the air alone can be so toxic that officers can go down, on top of that and the explosive atmosphere and surroundings. Even turning on a light bulb can cause an ignition in the lab area.

Investigators are not the only ones that need to be aware and be able to adjust to the meth lab. Tactical teams should be flexible enough to alter their entries into a structure in an effort to keep them safe. Trip, slip and falls hazards are everywhere. Meth cookers are not usually the cleanest of people and their homes and property reflect that. Lab mixtures, equipment and general clutter are the norm in these places. As any experience lab investigator can tell us, it is not in our best interest go knocking these items over, into or on ourselves.

Many of the chemicals involved in the meth lab can be inhaled and absorbed. We don’t have to purposefully get this stuff on (or in) us for them to affect and harm the operator. We all know what fire and explosions can do to the human body, so when we combine the toxic and flammable nature of our situation the results can be catastrophic. It does the investigation and more importantly the injured officers no good if a police officer as well as innocent bystanders gets hurt in the name of raiding a meth lab. Labs can be found by just about anyone. In my own little turf only about 50% of the labs we seized are located through any type of medium or long-term investigation. The other 50% are found by accident or very short investigation initiated by other divisions of the police departments of the various agencies located here. Some of the following are examples of accidental or short-term investigative ways labs can be discovered. But, these are in no way the only ways.

Non-related warrant service

Domestic disputes

Traffic stops

Fire / explosion

Probation / welfare search

Property owner / neighbor complaint

Citizen report of found (dumped) lab related items

Citizen report of active meth lab activity

Injured person report (innocent victim or suspect)

Officer observes signs of lab through senses and investigates

Domestic and traffic stops probably put officers in the most immediate danger. Simply because the element of surprise is so relevant. Lets say an officer(s) get a call for service to respond to a domestic dispute. Lets say that the male subject has a meth lab in the basement (or anywhere in the residence). The female is talking to officers and then blurts out, “He has a meth lab in the basement!” The officers now have a whole new set of dangers to face. The suspect may attempt to flee or take on the officers knowing that being caught with a lab is a serious drug related charge. In almost 90+% of the cases where a lab is found the cooker is a user of the drug, complicating matters even more. As any officer where meth is a problem can testify to dealing with someone under the influence of this stuff or in the tweaking withdrawal stage is a challenge to say the least. The suspect may even make a break for the lab area in an attempt to destroy any evidence or use its chemical reagents to assault the officers.

We all know the dangers of the traffic stop. The people we are stopping always seem to have the “first shot”, even with the best tactics are applied by the officer. I can also tell you that when the meth lab phenomenon hit our area the police involved vehicle chase went up dramatically. Cookers just seem to think they have nothing to loose if the police attempt to stop them. In the paranoid mind of the cooker they always believe that the officer knows about the lab concealed in the truck, even if the real reason stop was for a minor traffic violation. I have heard of reports of cookers rigging anhydrous ammonia (a meth reagent) tanks and hoses in a manner to spray officers with the deadly substance when they approach the vehicle. I have also heard of suspects leading officers in a chase only to set the interior of the car ablaze and the jumping out in an obvious attempt to destroy evidence. In the process they have just initiated a large rolling bomb with nobody guiding it. It is easy to see with just this one scenario how innocent bystanders can become unwilling participants in the meth culture.

Of everyone involved in the drug culture nobody caters to firearms than those involved in methamphetamine and its production. We have pulled arsenals out of meth labs that would make some small armies jealous. They seem to like handguns and assault rifles the best. Our academy instructors and FTO’s will always tell us that we should assume somebody is armed until you know they aren’t. This especially holds true with the meth makers and those associated with them. As we catch the “cookers” we also tell them how we did it. It is not uncommon to seize military items when raiding / arresting meth labs. We often are finding ourselves hauling out night vision, military style binoculars, web gear, camo gear and even Kevlar vests out of meth labs. On one occasion we found ourselves face to face with some fairly complicated Improvised Explosive Devises (IED’s) in the form of pipe bombs, crickets and hand grenades. Some had trip wires attached to them. This was disconcerting to say the least; just one more thing to watch out for along with the bad guys (and gals) and the meth lab itself.

You are going to find that many of the firearms that are seized at meth lab locations are stolen. They are taken in burglaries, thefts and out right robberies and then traded around from person to person, guns for dope.

When in a tactical raid situation keep in mind that these people tend to gather in small groups. Also keep in mind that it is rare that someone will be found at a meth lab location who doesn’t know it is there or have some relationship to it, even if they are just there to buy what is being produced. Those involved in meth culture tend to only hang around others involved with that same culture. They have little use for the rest of us, unless it is to obtain something from us (in one way or another). This is a paranoid little world they live in. Everyone they do not know or is part of their existence in making, selling or using meth is either a cop or works for the cops. What I am saying here is when tactically entering a meth lab location don’t assume that everything is safe and secure because the cooker is in custody. Often there will be others hiding on the premises and they pose as great a danger as your attended target. Remember, you may be taking their only source off the street for an extended period of time and that may not go over so well. Add to the fact that even if they don’t carry a firearm on a regular basis there may be one or several at their disposal just laying around.

All is not finished for the officers who discover the lab or even an entry team who executes a search warrant just because the lab is located. The evidence gathering clean up crew will most definitely be preoccupied with the lab itself. If the unit is large enough they may be able to supply their own security. But sometimes the team may not be big enough to deal with the Haz-Mat situation, the evidence collection and the interviewing process plus keep the property secure from others who happen to stop by. If the initial investigation is over and there is no covert plan on the board to place anyone else in custody put an obvious security / perimeter team around the location to keep others away. If you don’t more times than not the people dealing with the lab are going to be dealing with newcomers looking for dope.

When the lab site is secure it is a crime scene. That means nobody else is to enter that area except the appropriate people. This may seem like a “no brainer”, but you would be surprised on how many people will ask you for permission to go into the residence to obtain personal property that they “absolutely must have”. These items will include purses, clothing and anything else they can think of. These people may not even be in custody, but that is still your crime scene. If they are allowed inside and get hurt you and your department will most likely be held liable. Not to mention the potential for them to destroy evidence.

Made in America could be stamped on the bags that meth is distributed in. We have no country or government to blame. There are no tightly secured boarders to cross. There are no routes of distribution to be interdicted. There are no king pins to pour all our military and law enforcement resources at like Pablo Escobar. The borders for our local meth labs are the streets and alleys in our very own community. The Escobar’s may be the guy (or gal) living next to us. We have nobody to look at or blame except ourselves.

Meth labs and all their effects on our society have the potential to become one of the most significant threats that a community can face, at least in regards to local law enforcement. These people operate in cells, they manufacture and distribute a substance (meth) that has intense negative physical and effects on the people of our country. They are well armed and can be very organized. They live in our community and their acts of violence can be planned or completely random. They are often irrational in thought. They have a single mission and are motivated in their actions. Any of this sound familiar since 9-11? If nothing else meth labs and the War on Drugs in general has given us a blue print of how to fight and what to expect in our very young War on Terrorism.

Greg Ferency

NOTE: I enjoy hearing from others and welcome any comments or conversations in regards to matters I have written about. Please feel free to contact me at

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