Detroit Bomb Squad’s business is booming

George Hunter
The Detroit News

The officer in charge of the Detroit Police Bomb Squad has a request: Please don’t bring hand grenades to the police station.

It happens several times a year, most recently in Hamtramck on Feb. 10, when a woman brought two vintage grenades into the building that houses City Hall and the police station, said Sgt. Matt Taylor. The devices were later determined to be inert, he said.

Explosives detection K-9 officer Steve Murdock, right, helps Sgt. Matt Taylor put on his Med-Eng EOD 9 bomb suit.

“Usually, it’s some sweet old lady who was cleaning out her uncle’s basement; he was a military veteran who brought home a grenade, and she brings it to the precinct,” Taylor said.

“We want people to know: If you find something like that, treat it as an emergency. Leave the area immediately and call 911 — don’t bring it to us.”

Dealing with errant hand grenades is only part of an increasingly hectic workload for Taylor and his crew. The Bomb Squad responded to a record number of calls last year, he said, adding he couldn’t for tactical reasons disclose how many times the crew was dispatched or how many officers are in his unit.

“We broke the old record in September, and just kept going,” said Taylor, whose unit responds to bomb threats in several Metro Detroit communities, while also monitoring special events and investigating illegal fireworks.

“We had about 60 percent more calls than the previous record,” Taylor said. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen a steady increase in our call volume.”

Taylor attributed the increase to more citizens calling in suspicious packages. “It’s not that there are more bombs out there; it’s better awareness on the part of the public; and patrol officers and fire fighters as recognizing things as possible threats,” he said.

Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski said she was in a meeting when City Hall was evacuated after the woman brought the grenades into the building. Majewski said she once found a grenade while helping a friend clean a basement in West Bloomfield Township.

“The cops came out and looked at it, and said it was safe,” she said. “And we had a souvenir.”

The Detroit Police Bomb Squad has assorted rockets, mortars and rifle grenades it has rendered safe for training.

Explosive collection

The bomb squad’s headquarters on Detroit’s east side houses a collection of artifacts found over the years that includes mortars; a homemade rocket launcher adorned with a red Olde English D; an 8-inch Howitzer shell; and a rusted World War I-era German projectile, one of four that turned up in June while a crew was demolishing a Corktown warehouse.

“Every one of these things has a story behind it,” Taylor said.

Depending on the situation, the squad will take a suspicious device to Rouge Park, or another safe area, to detonate it, although that’s not always feasible. Helping officers make that decision is the latest addition to the crew: Bri, a bomb-sniffing German Shepherd.

Bri, whose training was paid for by the Detroit Public Safety Foundation, is the first Detroit Police dog assigned to a bomb technician. In the past, if a dog found a bomb, it had to find a bomb tech and lead the officer to the device.

"Brisance, aka Bri", a two-year-old female German Shepherd explosive detection K-9, sniffs explosives on the table used for her continued training with her handler Detroit police officer Steve Murdock.

“Being assigned to the dog, I can get close to suspicious packages a lot quicker, and make immediate decisions, where others wouldn’t be able to,” said Bri’s handler, Officer Steve Murdock.

Most of Bri’s work involves sniffing suspicious packages, referred to by officers as unattended items.

“We can’t evacuate downtown every time someone puts a book bag down,” Taylor said. “But we can’t just do nothing. So we have to make a risk-management decision about what to do with unattended items. Bri helps with that a great deal.”

Officers must undergo two years of FBI training to be certified as bomb technicians. The job description has changed in recent years, with heightened concern about terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, Taylor said.

“Bomb squads have had to adapt,” said Taylor, who became a Detroit police officer in 1999 and assumed command of the bomb unit in 2010. “The trend is to be lighter, meaner and faster. We have lighter protective gear, because with a complex terrorist attack we have to have the capacity to move faster. That does increase the danger level to us, but that’s what we signed up for. The safety of the public is always the most important consideration.”

Most of the squad’s calls are to investigate unattended items, Taylor said. “That’s where someone left a backpack or book bag near a potential target area,” he said. “It’s typically downtown, where a lot of people are moving around. A lot of times, it’s a homeless person who left the backpack somewhere.”

Injuries tied to fireworks

More than 90 percent of bomb squad runs turn out to be false alarms, but Taylor said they all must be taken seriously. “You never know when it’s real,” he said.

The only time Taylor recalls an unattended item turning out to be a bomb was in 2011, when a man who had a beef with the FBI left a tool bag outside the McNamara Building on Michigan Avenue in downtown Detroit, which houses several federal agencies.

“He built a small but viable (explosive device), placed it in a tool bag, and put it in the smoking area outside the McNamara Building,” Taylor said. “Someone found it, brought it inside, and placed it in the lost and found. It sat there for (three weeks). At some point, someone X-rayed the item, believed it was (a bomb), and called us.”

Gary Mikulich, who lived in the Upper Peninsula, was charged with the crime but was determined mentally incapable to stand trial. He is incarcerated in a North Carolina federal prison that offers mental health treatment.

While Taylor said he’s not aware of anyone being hurt by unattended items or grenades brought into police precincts, homemade fireworks are responsible for several injuries a year, he said.

“It is a serious and ongoing problem in the city: Unpermitted, consumer-grade illegal homemade pyrotechnics,” he said. “I get several calls a year where people, often small children, are seriously injured, and the occasional fatality.

“In some ways, homemade fireworks are more dangerous than military ordinance, because a piece of military ordinance is designed to be safe to handle. With homemade fireworks, you don’t know if it was made by someone who knew what they were doing.

“Every year, we see young children losing hands, or parts of hands, because (fireworks) were made improperly. It’s a serious threat. If a member of the public finds this stuff, it’s illegal and needs to be reported to police, and if first responders encounter stuff like this, it’s a job for the bomb squad.”

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

@GeorgeHunter_DN