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Patrol Use of Shields

Written by Bevan, Melanie, Lord, Robert

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 by.

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 regularly.

Hard Lessons

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 shield.

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 headquarters.

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, insurmountable.

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 size shields.

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 reasonably priced.

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 officers.

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 headquarters.

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.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2014

Rating : 10.0


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