U police respond to anthrax calls, fears

Tim Sturrock

University police have responded to at least nine reports of suspicious powders, envelopes or packages since Monday – 16 in all since Sept. 11. The Minneapolis bomb squad responded to suspicious packages at least four times since the attacks.

Judson Freed, University deputy director of emergency management, said the large amount of calls is due to a heightened alert caused by the terrorist attacks and to recent reports of envelopes containing anthrax.

So far, no letters or packages in the state or at the University contained anthrax.

Despite an increase of false alarms, Freed said he’d rather receive more calls than have people disregard their suspicions. On one hand, he said, some people are just being overly cautious: “They see a little bit of white powder someplace and they pick up the phone and they call it in. On the other hand, what if it is something and they didn’t?”

Freed said it’s important to note the University hasn’t received any threats.

“We have no reason to believe that we have a greater threat facing us in particular then we did on Sept. 11,” he said. “I can’t stress that enough. Fear doesn’t help, it really doesn’t.”

He said his department has been developing plans to deal with biological and bomb threats for years but never anticipated this many calls.

“You’ve probably heard stories of people being overwhelmed; we’re not overwhelmed, which is good,” Freed said.

Very little has changed in terms of procedures or plans since Sept. 11, Freed said, except now the FBI doesn’t respond to calls on suspicious packages unless it’s absolutely necessary. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Freed said that prior to last month’s attacks, his office would have the FBI respond if there was a concern. But now, with the number of false alarms across the state, his office and University police assess the problem before calling local authorities or the FBI.

Paul McCabe, spokesman for the FBI’s Minneapolis office, said the bureau would normally respond as a courtesy when calls about bomb threats or biological threats happened every couple of months. “Now with the sheer number of calls that’s impossible,” he said.

Last Tuesday, a potential anthrax threat in the Mayo Memorial Building caused the Minneapolis Fire Department and bomb squad to respond.

Freed said it was necessary to check out the Mayo scare. “We got to the point where we couldn’t be sure – we tried really hard to be sure and we couldn’t – so we called in the right folks.”

When the bomb squad arrived, it determined the package contained a book.

Freed said that incident was the only instance in which any portion of a University building had to be closed.

At about the same time, a doctor in the Mayo building said he had an office assistant call the police after receiving a large, bulging envelope. The doctor asked his name not be used because he said he’s been targeted by animal rights groups in the past.

He said he wasn’t surprised to find the package was harmless, but it concerned him when he saw the letter didn’t have a return address and was wrapped with Scotch tape. He refused to open it, which caused his co-workers to tease him.

“Some people kind of smiled and I said, ‘if somebody wants to open it, I won’t be in the room when it’s opened’ and nobody volunteered,” he said. “They all said, ‘Yeah, yeah, maybe we should be careful.'”

No specific figures are available on false alarms, suspicious powders or envelopes. Department of Public Safety spokesman Kevin Smith said the department receives 20 to 40 calls daily from local law enforcement asking how they should deal with suspicious packages and powders. Before Sept. 11, he said, the DPS rarely received those calls.

Capt. Steve Johnson of the University police said people should use legitimate return addresses and let others know to expect a package before they put it in the mail.

 

Tim Sturrock welcomes comments at
[email protected]