The use of ballistic shields by SWAT
units has been around for nearly three decades. These shields have allowed for
safer rescues and, in some cases, have brought about a quicker end to
potentially deadly encounters. An increase in police killings and injuries by
gunfire over the past several years has recently brought about a paradigm shift
in the manner in which ballistic shields are deployed.
The lack of widespread deployment
policies of ballistic shields for patrol officers, who often times need them
the most, has resulted in variations of the phrase, “Have someone get the
shield from the station and bring it out here.” Prior to 2012, this phrase was
commonly spoken by street supervisors at the St. Petersburg Police Department
at high-risk scenes, as critical and potentially life-saving minutes ticked
Similar to many agencies, St. Petersburg kept a
limited number of ballistic shields at police headquarters, available for
short-term check-out by supervisors as needed. Ideally, four shields were to be
checked out and returned by patrol sergeants voluntarily at the beginning and
end of each shift. However, with electronic read-offs and take-home vehicles,
the number of shields actually on the street at any given time varied greatly. With
as many as 15 patrol sergeants working the street at the same time on some
days, the four shields wouldn’t go very far even if they were checked out
In January 2011, St. Petersburg
Police K9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz was shot and killed by a wanted suspect
hiding in the attic of a home. Working under the assumption that Officer
Yaslowitz was still alive and being held hostage by the gunman in the attic, officers
converged on the scene and began a series of rescue attempts. Continually
forced out of the home due to heavy gunfire coming from the attic, and at a
significant tactical disadvantage, officers on the scene called for a ballistic
Sergeant Thomas Baitinger, who
was a few miles down the road at police headquarters, heard the call on the
radio, checked out a ballistic shield from the equipment room, and raced to the
scene. Sgt. Baitinger maneuvered the shield over his head, as best he could, to
provide protection for himself and two other officers during a daring rescue
attempt into the house but, unfortunately, his efforts were in vein. Sgt.
Baitinger was shot and killed by a bullet that missed the shield but struck him
in the collar area.
Nearly two hours later, Officer
Yaslowitz’s body was retrieved from the attic in the midst of a fierce gun
battle with the murderer, who also died at the scene. In a debriefing session
only hours after the incident, one complaint was repeated by a number of
officers: It took too long to get a ballistic shield to the scene from police
A month following this incident,
yet another St. Petersburg Police Officer, David Crawford, was shot and killed
after checking out with a vehicle burglary suspect. For a department that had
not lost a single member in the line of duty for 30 years, to now reconcile the
loss of three officers in such a short time span seemed, for a while,
Compounding this was the loss of
two additional officers to gunfire within the previous year at nearby Tampa
Police Department, Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, who were shot and
killed by a suspect at close range. Amidst the tragedy and pain, began the
healing process. In conjunction with this healing process, came the realization
that there were lessons to be learned from these tragedies.
By Popular Demand
Consequently, the department
hosted a consortium of nearly 30 outside public safety entities to provide
critical feedback on potential safety and training issues associated with the
Tampa Bay Region’s most recent officer deaths. While a plethora of
recommendations emerged, one of several consensus items was that ballistic
shields should have been more readily available to patrol officers on the street
on the day Officer Yaslowitz and Sgt. Baitinger were killed.
While not new to policing by any
means, ballistic shields had primarily found a home only with SWAT teams for
use in armed standoffs or during search warrant executions. As officer-related
shootings and deaths trended upward in recent years, many Tampa Bay agency
leaders had already begun to recognize the value in a different type of
ballistic shield deployment for its officers.
The SPPD responded by ordering
enough ballistic shields to assign one shield to every department patrol squad
and every specialty squad that routinely works the street. While this one
ballistic shield per squad deployment plan was new to St. Petersburg, it was not new to the Tampa
Bay Region. Both the Clearwater Police Department and Pinellas County Sheriff’s
Office had that practice since the mid-2000s.
Unique Shield Design
Going even further, a number of
the most tactically proficient officers within the agency worked closely with a
selected shield manufacturer to produce a unique requested design with
ambidextrous arm cutouts.
This allowed for patrol officers
to extend their arms to their normal shooting position rather than the canted,
“gangster-style” shooting position typically required of traditional shields.
This design improved officers’ shooting accuracy, eliminated malfunctions from
handgun slides hitting the shield viewport, and helped build shield-holders’
confidence in their ability to end a threat quickly.
Some older shield models were
often heavy, cumbersome, and difficult to maneuver. The newly designed St. Pete
ballistic shield, sold under the brand name DeadStop® Equalizer, protects a 24-inch
by 40-inch area and weighs only 14.5 pounds. The popularity of this shield
design has become apparent. LCOA Composites
, the manufacturer of the shield, indicates
that it is currently their best-selling standard-size shield model.
A More Ambitious Practice
In June 2010, Polk County, Fla.
Sheriff’s Deputies Paul Fairbanks and Michael Braswell were shot in the line of
duty during an early morning encounter with a person riding a bicycle with no
light. The suspect was shot and killed and both deputies survived the attack.
Shortly thereafter, Pasco County Sheriff Grady Judd formed a committee, wherein
the decision was made to provide every patrol deputy with a ballistic shield,
likely the first large agency in Florida and perhaps the only agency of its
size in the nation to do so.
In order to purchase and deploy
one shield for every deputy, the agency chose 17-inch by 29-inch ballistic
shields. These are smaller than the more common full size 24-inch by 36-inch
shields; however, they provide adequate head, neck and upper torso Threat Level
IIIA ballistic protection with a viewport. The smaller size allows for easier,
front seat storage and deployment of the shields, an advantage over standard
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office
also worked with a shield manufacturer, Venture Ballistics
, to slightly modify
the standard design to one that better accommodated their agency’s needs. This
new design is currently sold under the name “First Responder.” Every officer
received shield training and, according to then Sgt. Mike Hughes of the training
unit, a strong emphasis was placed on when and when not to deploy the shields,
what rounds they can stop, and what rounds they can’t.
The shields have been in use in
the field for more than two years and have been put to good use. They have an expected life span of five
years, according to the manufacturer, and at around $600 per shield were
Mass Shootings and Rapid Response
The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School showed the need for additional
training and change of tactics for first responders. A new type of Rapid
Response Deployment for responding patrol officers was developed and became
popular across the country for officers to make on-the-spot decisions, instead
of waiting for special weapons and tactics teams.
While ballistic shields were typically not initially
part of this rapid deployment, the accessibility of more of these shields to
street officers has brought about modifications to deployment training aimed at
improving officer safety, increasing the speed associated with engaging the
threat and, subsequently, saving more lives. In St. Petersburg today, when two
officers arrive on the scene of an active shooter incident with a minimum of
one ballistic shield, they are encouraged to assess and engage the threat. This
is as opposed to the previously practice of a minimum deployment of five
Cost of Deployment
Ballistic shields are expensive,
but when taking into account the direct impact on saving an officer’s life,
they aren’t that expensive. With standard-size NIJ Level IIIA shields ranging
from $900–$2,900 and smaller shields selling for measurably less, there are
definitely options for tight fiscal budgets. Departments that have not
previously deployed ballistic shields within patrol and specialty team ranks
may be eligible to pay for this protection with forfeiture seizure funds, as
St. Petersburg did. Nearly all ballistic shield manufacturers offer five-year
warranties on their ballistic shields.
While the past few years have seen
an increase in the deployment of ballistic shields to patrol officers in
Florida, many agencies around the nation have yet to adopt this trend. Whether
it be due to costs or increased training requirements associated with their
deployment, arguably one of the best pieces of life-saving equipment available
on the market today is not readily available to the average patrol officer
across the U.S.
Tragedy within the St. Petersburg
Police Department provided the backdrop of both a community and personal loss,
and a hard lesson that ballistic shields are a protective technology that
should no longer be relegated to SWAT teams only or a shelf at police
Melanie Bevan, Ed.D. is the
Assistant Chief of the St.
Petersburg, Fla. Police Department. Officer
Robert Lord is in the Research and Planning section of the Executive Operations
Division of the St. Petersburg, Fla. Police Department. Lord may be reached at Robert.Lord@stpete.org.