Bringing the Cover With You

     of all primary school shootings and attempted shootings that have occurred since 1997, fewer than a quarter of them have occurred in communities whose populations exceeded 50,000. At least half a dozen occurred in areas designated as unincorporated or townships of small population densities. Although there has never been a hard and fast rule, it is safe to say that no area, including isolated communities, is immune from the threat of the active shooter. Active shooter situations are one good reason why rural law enforcers need ballistic shields.

     When the general public pictures an officer using a ballistic shield, the idea conjures up images of SWAT officers forming an entry team, command centers and deliberate operations. But no one should discount the rural deputy miles away from the next nearest deputy.

     A ballistic shield, sometimes called a body bunker or ballistic blanket, is an officer-portable device designed to provide additional protection against projectiles. The lightweight, portable versions are available in several levels of protection, usually as a flexible ballistic blanket. The most common are generally only effective against standard handgun bullets.

     Like the patrol officer's vest, the ballistic shield is composed of fibers designed to disperse the energy of a projectile. They should be employed in conjunction with, not in lieu of, the vest.

Rural agencies, unique needs

     The Rural Law Enforcement Technology Center (RULETC) is commissioned to assist agencies on technology issues, including information sharing and helping them develop and integrate off-the-shelf technology. Scott Barker, deputy director of RULETC, notes that rural law enforcement agencies have a significant need for ballistic shields and reduced resources to purchase them.

     According to a survey conducted by RULETC, in conjunction with the Justice and Safety Center at Eastern Kentucky University, more than half the 153 small and rural police and sheriff agencies polled, located in all 50 states, have 10 or fewer officers. Despite their size, these smaller agencies face the same types of responses as larger agencies. The agencies surveyed identified ballistic shield purchases as one of many purchases that will improve the safety and survivability of officers. The fact is many administrators struggle to prioritize the purchases of a department whose budget may be two decimal points away from urban departments.

     Newberry County, South Carolina, with an estimated 2005 population of 37,250 covering 635 square miles of primarily rural terrain, provides a unique patrol opportunity. Deployment areas for deputies are divided into zones. Depending on the call and location, the next closest deputy can be 5 to 10 minutes away.

     These deputies have two sources of ballistic shields. The heavier shields are used during deliberate CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) deployments and kept with the CERT equipment. Two officers are authorized and issued lightweight portable shields. Unfortunately, they are not available to every officer or every shift.

     Newberry County has its own CERT team. Although South Carolina State Police has a state law enforcement division capable of deploying a heavy SWAT team, a deliberate deployment in Newberry County is a 40-mile drive, taking at least an hour to respond. "Some things just won't wait an hour," comments Newberry County Sheriff James Lee Foster. During a recent incident of a barricaded subject, the Newberry CERT team successfully formed and deployed in a timely fashion, without using the state's resources.

     The city of Ripon, California, population 14,000, is a small community surrounded by municipalities many times its size. The Ripon Police Department generally keeps a ballistic shield in the supervisor's vehicle — a lighter weight model capable of protecting against handgun rounds.

     The Ripon PD employs a joint SWAT team with a nearby agency, and according to Chief Richard Bull, response time in Ripon is fairly fast compared to previous agencies over which he has presided in his 22 years of experience. As he notes, "Some incidents will not wait for the call up."

     In Sierra County, California, population 3,555 spread across 959 square miles of canyons and valleys, often only a single deputy is on duty during certain hours and others can be called out if necessary, according to Deputy Matt Boyd. Though assistance from nearby counties is available, areas with population densities where other law enforcement officers are likely to be patrolling are 30 to 40 minutes away.

Open terrain

     Besides the vast distances covered by a limited number of officers, another consideration for rural law enforcement is the terrain near residences. As Boyd notes, not only is backup 20 to 40 minutes away, but depending on terrain, the approach to residences is often wide open. For example, some areas have a fire code which requires vegetation and debris to be trimmed 360 degrees around a house. This trimmed void includes trees, which provide cover for the rural deputy. Worse, the walls and siding of prefabricated homes, common in areas near national forests, can never be considered cover for anything larger than an air rifle.

     On many rural enforcement calls, the opportunity for invisible deployment does not exist. If a residence is the only one at the end of the dirt road, the presence of a vehicle is announced with alacrity. It is impractical to drive with headlights off down winding mountain roads or pavement raised only slightly off a bayou.

     Worse, residents who live in scenic areas design these residences to take in the scenery. Boyd describes one call where most of the house, including the front entrance, was glass. He and other responding officers found it impossible to approach the house with any kind of cover.

     On another call, Boyd and other officers responded to a subject barricaded in a shed. Responding officers had concealment in adjacent mobile homes, but no cover. It was tenuous to attempt to move to the position of advantage in broad daylight. The officers wisely waited the situation out. Later, deputies located a handgun and what could have been a fairly good shooting position.

Joint training

     Joint training is an essential aspect of body bunker use, as Bull has learned through the Ripon PD's interaction with surrounding agencies that provide support. In general, officers from different agencies have different levels of familiarity with ballistic shields. For example, officers will seek cover behind the officer carrying the ballistic protection. When moving forward in a line, this is fine. But imagine three officers behind an appropriately equipped officer moving down a hallway. Do they orient in relation to their direction of movement, thus exposing each officer as they slowly pass an open doorway to an unsecured room? How do they prioritize their movements toward quickly scanning rooms or a deliberate search?

     Bull explains his agency routinely incorporates ballistic shield training in their regular firearms training. Some incidents, especially active shooting incidents, do not afford the luxury of securing an area and waiting until a team can be assembled. "Ballistic shields are invaluable for active shooter incidents," he says.

     Capt. Wesley Boland of the Newberry County Sheriff's Office, explains that just having the ballistic shields available to an agency is not enough. Using them requires training, and no administrator should feel comfortable simply issuing equipment without adequate training. Newberry County trains and uses ballistic shields on a regular basis. Deputies who have ballistic shields in patrol cars are CERT qualified.

     Agencies also must routinely use allied agency training, not only for ballistic shields but other types of equipment like air support and mounted patrol. This will insure a habitual relationship which uses common frequencies, familiarity with allied equipment and a team law enforcement concept. Everyone can contribute toward the training goal. For example, an agency that might not have a larger department's equipment may have a much larger piece of real estate available for training.

     According to Boland, Newberry County also conducts active shooter training using Simunitions annually. This is coordinated training of allied agencies through Newberry County. "We train every single one of our officers for active shooter incidents," adds Foster.

Covering costs

     Because they are prohibitively expensive, how can a rural agency afford to purchase ballistic shields? It is unlikely that a highly motivated individual officer could go out and purchase a product that costs three times the price of a duty handgun. Although they are a high priority for officer safety, they are not necessarily the highest priority. Most administrators are already juggling the cost of communications equipment, vehicles and safety equipment on limited budgets. Even larger municipalities do not put one in every patrol car, as recommended.

     Although Foster admits ballistic shields are expensive, he says, "I would encourage rural agencies to obtain and train with them." Newberry deploys shields regularly on high-risk warrant services and searches.

     The Department of Homeland Security has grant opportunities such as the Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program (CEDAP) (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/odp/equipment_cedap.htm). These opportunities are designed to help smaller jurisdictions obtain necessary equipment and training that will strengthen or augment their capabilities. RULETC also works to keep agencies aware of grants relating to current technology.

     Agencies must be willing to employ creative strategies when allocating funding for ballistic shields. For example, some agencies might look for state-funded grants that fall under "school safety" with a provision for equipment. Some counties can combine fire and law enforcement resources for emergency response training, which could incorporate additional funding.

     When looking to purchase agencies should pick a product that is at least as effective as the officer's vest. Second, select a manufacturer that markets a practice shield so officers may train techniques without using the real thing. Third, the one that goes in every patrol car should be the flexible kind. This will allow it to fit in an already crowded car and be quiet when bumping against a wall while moving.

     The ballistic shield should be in every patrol car, available for rapid deployment for incidents that "just won't wait."

     Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches Administration of Justice at Hartnell College in Salinas, California.

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