Suspicious Biological Outbreaks: Benefits of Conducting Joint Law Enforcement and Public Health Investigations

By Kelly Shannon, Crim-Epi Program Manager, FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD) Biological Countermeasures 

Combating the Biological Threat

Crim-Epi WorkshopIn the last 30 years, there have been numerous deliberate biological threat incidents, from the Rajneeshi cult food contamination in 1984[1], to the Anthrax letters in 2001, to any number of recent ricin letter mass mailings.  The advancement of scientific technology and increased public availability of scientific knowledge have led to more opportunities for intentional misuse of biological materials for nefarious purposes.  The challenges of discerning an intentional release of a pathogen from a naturally-occurring outbreak highlight the importance of a coordinated response between law enforcement and public health.  In the past, it was not uncommon for law enforcement and public health to conduct separate investigations. Unfortunately, the lack of coordination often limited the effectiveness of these independent, but often overlapping investigations.

In order to promote collaboration and information sharing between the disciplines, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) developed a Joint Criminal-Epidemiological Investigations Model for training public health and law enforcement personnel.  The primary means that FBI and CDC utilize to educate public health, law enforcement, and first responders on this model is the Joint Domestic Criminal-Epidemiological Investigations Workshop initiative. These workshops provide participants with an introduction to criminal and epidemiological investigations, enhance appreciation for each discipline’s expertise, help participants anticipate common issues that arise during an interagency response, and foster development of solutions through best practices when conducting joint threat assessments, investigations, and interviews.

Overview of the Joint Crim-Epi Investigations Model

The Joint Crim-Epi Investigations model promotes several methods that law enforcement and public health entities can use to improve preparedness for, and response to, biological threat incidents.  The first method is to encourage law enforcement and public health to develop positive and effective working relationships, thereby improving information exchange and promoting regular interactions between the two disciplines.  Another method is to codify the relationships in a written protocol or agreement, which may take the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).  A model MOU for joint public health-law enforcement investigations was developed by a workgroup convened by the CDC, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Prevention, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice.[2]  Several key concepts are outlined in the MOU:

  • Triggers/indicators required to initiate information exchange
  • Procedures for conducting a threat assessment
  • Guidance for conducting joint interviews
  • Protocols for information analysis and the sharing of investigative results

As noted in the model MOU, the joint investigations model encourages the two disciplines to conduct joint interviews of patients who may have an illness as a result of a biological threat incident.  This is a process that pairs together law enforcement and public health investigators during interviews of case patients and exposed persons.  Joint interviews are a great best practice because they allow both disciplines to evaluate initial information collected, utilizing the unique perspectives and expertise of each investigator.  Capitalizing on the strengths of each discipline can aid in identifying the source of the infection and/or the perpetrators of the incident more quickly than would have been possible otherwise.

Success of the Crim-Epi Workshops

Multiple FBI field offices and State and local agencies have reported using joint investigative methods to successfully respond to incidents involving biological threat agents.  Since 2004, the domestic Joint Criminal-Epidemiological Workshop has been conducted for over 3,000 Federal, State, and local participants in approximately 40 locations throughout the country.  When the initiative began, it was often the first time many attendees to interacted with their law enforcement and public health counterparts. In recent years, the workshops have served as the foundation for establishing or refining formal information sharing agreements and joint protocols amongst regional stakeholders.

We encourage Federal, State, and local public health, first responders, and law enforcement to participate in a Joint Crim-Epi Workshop hosted in your region.  The 2015-2016 workshop schedule is as follows:

  • November 4-5, 2015 – Chicago
  • January 13-14, 2016 – Sacramento
  • March 2-3, 2016 – Anchorage
  • May 11-12, 2016 – Memphis
  • June 8-9, 2016- Cleveland
  • August 10-11, 2016 – Des Moines

If you are interested in attending one of these workshops, please contact SSA Kelly H. Shannon, Crim-Epi Program Manager, FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD) Biological Countermeasures Unit, kelly.shannon@ic.fbi.gov.  You will be connected to your local FBI Field Office WMD Coordinator for registration instructions.

Additional Resources

Joint Criminal and Epidemiological Investigations Handbook (electronic version): http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism/wmd/criminal-and-epidemiological-investigation-handbook.

10-minute video demonstration of a joint interview and investigation: http://vimeo.com/87104548

Joint Public Health-Law Enforcement Model MOU: To obtain a copy of the model MOU, send an email request to: phlawprogram@cdc.gov. The online version is available at: http://www.nasemso.org/projects/domesticpreparedness/documents/jimoufinal.pdf

[1] Torok et al, Journal of the American Medical Association, August 6, 1997 Vol 278 No 5.

[2] http://www.nasemso.org/projects/domesticpreparedness/documents/jimoufinal.pdf

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