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Amnesty boxes: A component of physical security for law enforcement. (Police Practice).

In response to the September 11,2001, terrorist activities, additional security measures have sprung up nationwide. As a result, many libertarians fear that civil rights will erode. Consequently, one feature of physical security, amnesty boxes, may make these intrusions more palatable for civil rights advocates while, at the same time, providing additional safety for those attending special events. In addition to reducing the level of intrusiveness of those being screened, amnesty boxes also can lessen the risk to law enforcement and contract security officers working checkpoints by providing guilty individuals with a nonconfrontational option to diffuse their impending detection.

An amnesty box is a sealed container positioned immediately before a metal detector or search checkpoint that allows individuals to discard any item of contraband inside it without fear of detection or arrest. The military and international airports have used this concept for decades. Could this concept work in social events where large numbers of people in attendance present a security challenge? Such events as sports competitions, concerts, and graduations traditionally draw large audiences and create any number of possible security issues. These may manifest as threats, assaults, or simply the possession and use of paraphernalia considered contraband. In light of recent tragedies, the law enforcement community may want to extend the use of the amnesty box concept into other areas and make it an integral part of physical security measures.


In response to the recent terrorist attacks and the potential for further reprisals, the University of Central Florida (UCF) and its police department (UCFPD) went on alert. The heightened concern for security increased when intelligence reports indicated that further violent acts would occur at a concert to be held on the UCF campus on September 29, 2001. The intelligence gathered included death threats against law enforcement officers. To reduce the likelihood of related or unrelated violent acts, the university and its police department implemented an amnesty box program as an additional physical security measure at the concert.


In implementing the program, the UCF and the UCFPD examined the environment in which the amnesty boxes were to be located and conducted a risk analysis. They considered several factors in the amnesty box placement. Initially, they conducted a risk assessment of the environment focusing on access to the main auditorium. Next, they examined existing barriers and discussed inserting additional ones. Also, they studied previous incidents at the venue to determine potential problems for future events.

A narcotics detector canine swept the area 4 hours before the concert to locate contraband that anyone might have hidden around the arena. Although none was found, a noticeable effect occurred on those loitering in the area. A sweep by an explosive detector canine was proposed but rejected due to availability.


The initial startup costs were less than $100. The bulk of the expenses went for sign construction; the signs, however, are reusable and not cost recurring. To offset these initial costs, program "buy in" included the sponsoring event participants who appreciated the added security interest on their behalf and purchased the signs for the department. The signs measured 30" x 30," made from white [degrees]-inch poster board with black and red warning letters 2 [degrees]" x 4" in size. Sign attachments would vary according to the containers in use. The signs can be placed directly on the containers, on walls at eye level, or on plastic stands. The department did not use metal stands because they could become potential weapons in the hands of unruly patrons.

Other materials used during the project included 30-gallon plastic trash containers with swing-type lids. Again, plastic is preferable to metal in the event that the container becomes a weapon. The department taped the lids to the base of the containers to prohibit removal or tampering. The depth of the container prevented anyone from reaching in to remove articles. The department placed shredded paper at the bottom of the containers to absorb liquids poured into the boxes and to minimize the shock to any loaded firearm dropped inside. A digital or video camera aided in documenting the articles recovered from the boxes. Miscellaneous items used included tape, rubber gloves, evidence collection items, paper towels, hand disinfectant, and a tarp.


The police department placed the amnesty boxes at four locations near the highly visible main, and only, entrance to the arena. Large signs were posted directly behind the boxes. Additional signs were located at the perimeter of the main entrance indicating that authorities would search attendees at the entrance to the arena. As patrons moved closer to the search area, they passed a final "last chance" amnesty box.


With the amnesty boxes in place, both uniform and plainclothes officers observed them. In several instances, patrons passed the boxes and, upon observing the security searches at the entrance, either returned to their cars or deposited items in the amnesty boxes.

Additionally, patrons attempted to conceal items of contraband, including cameras, immediately behind or in the vicinity of the amnesty boxes, presumably for later retrieval. Conducting area searches before and after the event proves important, especially with repeated amnesty box placement at a facility. Individuals may attempt to place contraband within the area prior to the event, thus defeating any type of precautionary search.


Once the flow of patrons to the concert ceased, UCFPD officers collected the amnesty boxes and transported them to a safe, secure area located out in the open to prevent any cave-in type of destruction should explosive devices be present in the boxes. The officers used a tarp to spread the contents of the boxes. After examining the contents, officers placed some items into property and discarded others. An inventory of seized items included 24 disposable cameras, 4 small sealed bottles of liquor, 3 folding lock-blade knives, 3 cigars containing marijuana, 2 packages of rolling papers, 2 small plastic bags of marijuana, 1 marijuana pipe, I fake Florida drivers license, numerous open containers of alcoholic beverages, and several objects containing marijuana residue.


Overall, the university and its police department observed several benefits from implementing the amnesty box concept at the concert. First, with patrons not in possession of contraband when officers searched them at the arena entrance, the likelihood of arrest decreased. Thus, the criminal justice system benefitted as persons did not enter it, thereby alleviating the potential strain on resources. Also, the added safety and the presence of the amnesty boxes as a security measure may have served as a deterrent effect, although such an effect certainly would merit further research to validate this observation.

Finally, the amnesty boxes increased law enforcement's visibility at the concert. They allowed the police department the ability to engage in a venture that reduced criminality and increased visibility with no negative aspects. In short, this effort was akin to community-policing initiatives that attempt to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system by minimizing arrests.


In this time of increased vigilance for the security of all Americans, the law enforcement community needs to explore all available avenues of ensuring the public's safety. In some instances, amnesty boxes can provide an ideal, low-cost complement for a security plan.

The University of Central Florida and its police department found these devices helpful during a concert held on campus shortly after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The amnesty boxes related directly to the "funneling effect" of the crowd, which eliminated individuals from bringing contraband items into the arena or concealing such materials within the area for later recovery. The amnesty boxes reduced confrontations between officers and patrons carrying contraband. Because patrons have the opportunity to discard such items, a buffer forms giving citizens who may, in times of intrusions to civil liberties, be concerned with their rights. However, examination of the boxes at the earliest appropriate time provides additional intelligence on the attendees with possible intrusive motivations. All in all, the university found the amnesty box concept ideally suited to the challenge of providing security at a highly popular special event.

RELATED ARTICLE: Amnesty Box Checklist

* Identify suitable containers to be used

* Conduct security sweep of event location to identify potential issues

* Implement sweep by narcotics and explosives detector canine

* Obtain evidence-collection supplies

Mr. Mesloh, a former law enforcement officer and canine handler and trainer, currently is the administrative services coordinator at the University of Central Florida Police Department in Orlando and is pursuing a Ph.D. in public affairs. Mr Henych is a Ph.D. student and instructor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Lieutenant Mingo serves with the University of Central Florida Police Department in Orlando and as an adjunct instructor in criminal justice at the university.
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Article Details
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Author:Mingo, Randy
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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