This case, one of a series written for the Kennedy School/US Department of Justice Executive Session on Domestic Preparedness, explores the question of how law enforcement agencies should respond to a threat with the potential for catastrophe. But, it's also a threat that could well be a hoax with an impact arising only from the over-reaction of officials. The case tells the story of the events that ensued in December, 1998 after an education official in Riverside, California received a letter containing a moist paper towlette and a trace of brown power, along with a note which read: "You have been exposed to anthrax," the biological toxin with the potential for mass fatalities. The case describes the response of the command staff of the Riverside County hazardous materials team, as well as subsequent self-criticism that their reaction to what turned out to be a hoax was disproportionate. It raises the question of how to balance the goal of public safety with the need for public reassurance and order, as well as the need to forestall a panic that might play into the hands of would-be terrorists.
As part of the series on domestic preparedness, the case is designed to raise questions about the assumptions underlying procedures; reasons for and obstacles to cross-jurisdiction co-operation, and the need and methods to assess risk before devising a response.