Use of force incidents by law enforcement have always been a part of the profession. Often manifested through traditional incidents such as effecting an arrest, deploying a taser or deadly force. These incidents occur daily during law enforcements interaction with non-compliant & combative persons. In 2007 the first large caliber use of force directed at an inanimate object occurred. Most recently, the Cincinnati Police Department SWAT team deployed & utilized a large caliber rifle to disable the engine of a semi-truck that was driving recklessly, swerving at police vehicles, and traveling in the wrong direction. SWAT teams in the United States & Canada continue to acquire large caliber rifles to combat vehicular threats that may arise out of conventional SWAT operations or domestic & international terror attacks. This article will examine Large Caliber Rifle utilization by SWAT and past incidents of LE use and criminal use against first responders that continue justify this capability for law enforcement.
Engine Disablement through Kinetic Energy
Often not understood is why a 50 BMG projectile is needed to disable vehicle engine blocks. A basic understanding of physics is first in order. Kinetic Energy or KE is defined as the energy that an object possesses due to its motion. As applied to a large caliber projectile or bullet, KE is the striking energy the bullet has due to its size and muzzle velocity when impacting an engine. Increased kinetic energy is required when striking an engine block to disrupt its operation and either cause an (ECM) electronic control module shut down or catastrophic damage that will disable an engine. The question often comes up about smaller projectiles use. Smaller caliber projectiles can be fired into engine blocks but have substantially less KE requiring an increase in amount fired and more critical shot placement. A typical 5.56 round (50 grains) has approximately 1250 ft/lbs. of energy as compared to a 50 BMG (748 grains) which has 12,500 ft/lbs. of energy at the muzzle. After a projectile leaves the muzzle and travels toward the intended target it loses KE through heat and sound. That can substantially affect KE dependent upon the distance.
Animate versus Inanimate Use
There have always been two views when it comes to the topic of using force against an object (inanimate) instead of a living person (animate). Some in law enforcement may not see a justification to shoot an object i.e. semi-truck engine as a means to bring about an end to an incident. This may also be compounded by restrictive policies in place that do not allow SWAT commanders and their personnel the discretion to utilize this tactic without violating departmental policy. Education is lacking in this area with police administrators. Previous law enforcement use of force incidents involving firing a large caliber projectile(s) into engine blocks have proven to be an effective means in disabling vehicles ranging from vans to semi-trucks and bringing incidents to a safe resolution. Engine disablement through the introduction of a large caliber projectile is a specialized tactic that falls under SWAT. SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics and utilization of a large caliber rifle is a prime example of a specialized weapon and a specialized tactic. Law enforcement cultural inertia also can be blamed for restrictive policies that do not allow use of force against objects. Law enforcement can be so stuck in reactive policing and only their agencies historical perspective that often they miss the boat on new tactics, techniques & procedures that can increase public and officer safety. The recent use of a large caliber rifle to end a police pursuit in Cincinnati again further demonstrated when properly utilized it is an effective means to bring an incident to a safe resolution.
LE Large Caliber Use of Force Incidents
There have been five use of force incidents involving large caliber rifles by law enforcement in the U.S. Listed are brief synopsis for each incident.
2007 Collierville, TN-A bank robbery suspect was pursued from Mississippi across Tennessee state lines where a subsequent vehicle barricade ensued. Suspect was driving a semi-truck and was boxed in on the freeway. Crisis Negotiators make contact but are not successful in getting suspect to surrender. Suspect claimed to have a weapon & explosives with him. Shelby County Sheriff’s Office and Germantown Police Department deployed police snipers with two 50 caliber rifles to an elevated position. Both snipers fired when the suspect attempted to go mobile with the semi-truck. A total of three rounds were fired into the engine block, causing the semi-truck’s engine to be disabled. Suspect was taken into custody shortly thereafter.
2015 Dallas, TX- A lone offender plotted to leave explosives at the Dallas Police Headquarters parking lot. When the activation of the explosives failed, the suspect fired rifle rounds at the front entrance of the police headquarters. As responding patrol officers arrived the suspect began to fire on them. Suspect then fled the location while being pursued down an interstate headed towards Houston. A successful tire deflation device deployment caused the suspect to exit the interstate at a small town. Suspect stopped his armored up van in a fast food parking lot and began firing at patrol officers once again from shooting ports on the van. Dallas SWAT was activated and responded to the scene and set a perimeter. The suspect was contacted by Crisis Negotiators and claimed to have twenty pounds of Composition C4 explosives with him. With the suspects van engine still running and having the capability to go mobile the use of a 50 caliber rifle was authorized to disable the engine. Three rounds were fired into the hood causing engine disablement. With deadly force also authorized on the suspect, the lone offender was killed shortly thereafter with a one round fired from a 50 caliber rifle by a police sniper.
2017 Marietta, GA- A Wells Fargo Bank was robbed by a lone suspect who claimed to have explosives in his backpack. With all employees and customers except for two bank tellers remaining inside, a sniper initiated assault was conducted by the Cobb County Police Department SWAT team. A police sniper fired one round from a .338 Lapua Magnum rifle which traveled through two glass doors across the lobby and impacted the suspect. Both bank employees were rescued by the SWAT team. The suspect was killed upon impact.
2019 Ramsey County, MN- A suspect with misdemeanor warrants failed to stop for a officers after a registration check. After a short pursuit the suspect pulled into a strip center near a large indoor mall. The suspect was driving a Winnebago style recreational vehicle. When officers approached the vehicle to make contact, the driver claimed to have explosives and use them. Ramsey County Sheriff’s SWAT was requested, and a perimeter was set. Due to the suspects capability to go mobile with his vehicle and his claims of explosives the decision was made to deploy a 50 caliber rifle. A police sniper fired one round into the engine block causing engine disablement. The suspect was taken into custody shortly thereafter.
2020 Cincinnati, OH- This incident involved a lengthy police pursuit involving a male suspect driving a semi-truck and trailer with a hostage. After the suspect released the hostage, he unhooked the trailer he was hauling and began driving in a threatening manner at law enforcement and wrong way on the freeway. Cincinnati SWAT was activated and responded to the area of pursuit. A decision was made to utilize a 50 caliber rifle in an effort to disable the engine of the semi-truck. A police sniper fired into the engine block causing the semi to eventually loose fluids and come to a stop. The suspect was taken into custody shortly thereafter.
All of the listed incidents ended either with the suspect surrendering or deadly force eventually being utilized. In each incident there was no collateral damage to the public or law enforcement personnel. The tactic of targeting engine blocks proved to be an effective tool for resolving incidents with vehicles. Worth mentioning is that none of the suspects as drivers/occupants sustained any injury’s due to the use of force directed at the engine. Suspects in these incidents ranged from wanted person to lone offender. Three out of the four incidents with the 50 Caliber rifle resulted in the suspect being taken into custody alive.
Criminal Use Against First Responders
The majority of the United States does not prohibit civilian sales and ownership of 50 caliber rifles. Only California, District of Columbia ban all 50 Caliber rifles with Connecticut specifically banning the Barrett M82A1 rifle. Other states may have special restrictions, but ownership is possible after meeting those guidelines. Of note are several incidents where civilian owners have committed criminal acts against first responders utilizing a 50 caliber rifle.
Kansas City, MO 2004- Suspect Donin Wright was due in court for illegal dumping charges. Before this incident he signs a property deed over to a relative and makes them the benefactor on his life insurance. The suspect and his girlfriend tell neighbors that they are not going to court and have made other plans. After intentionally setting fire to his residence the fire department responds and upon arrival, he begins shooting at fire department apparatuses with his 50 caliber rifle. It is suspected his girlfriend was also shooting a .30 caliber rifle. Police respond to the scene and on arrival the suspects open fire on them. With the house fully engulfed ammunicition begins to explode from the intense heat. SWAT responds and an evacuation is conducted of the immediate area. The house eventually explodes killing the suspect and his girlfriend. Recovered was the burned 50 Cal rifle, magazines, and other rifles. Incredibly the only Injury was to a Kansas City Paramedic who was shot in the chest but survived.
Fond Du Lac, WI 2013- Suspect started a structure fire which appeared to be suspicious in nature. As first responders were arriving on scene the suspect began firing a 50 caliber rifle at them. Multiple SWAT teams responded with armored rescue vehicles. Crisis negotiators were able to get the suspect to surrender. A search revealed inert explosive devices, 50 Cal armor piercing incendiary rounds and a tactical vest. Other rifles were recovered in addition to the 50 Cal rifle.
Yavapai County, AZ 2015- The Niedermeyer family intentionally baited a sheriff’s department volunteer in patrol to drive onto their property after a short chase of the son on his ATV. Once on their property the father shot the volunteer in the waist as he was standing outside the marked vehicle. The volunteer got back inside and alerted responding elements to the ambush. The father, Greg Niedermeyer, then transitioned from a 30 Cal rifle to his 50 Cal rifle and began shooting at the sheriff’s vehicle as the volunteer drove off the property. SWAT responded and the family was eventually taken into custody.
Marion County, FL- 2017 Suspect James Marker was upset that a natural gas pipeline was being installed in Marion County. The suspect drove to area of the pipeline and began to fire twenty plus rounds of 50 Cal at the pipeline and heavy machinery. Florida Highway Patrol responded, and a pursuit ensued with the suspect. The suspect eventually exits his vehicle and points a handgun at officers and is shot.
The Optics & Media Outlet Reporting
We all have heard the saying that perception is reality. Nevermore true in law enforcement. Mainstream media reporting of the July 18th use of a large caliber rifle by Cincinnati SWAT overwhelmingly was positive in nature. While typical police pursuits do not garner nationally coverage this pursuit was thrusted into the spotlight due to the employment of a large caliber rifle to bring the pursuit to a conclusion. In contrast, reporting of the Collierville, TN incident in 2007 was minimal and one would be hard pressed to find any internet links to the incident unless you spoke to officers involved. Largely due to the lack of social media at the time and those media outlets reporting. The 2015 incident in Dallas garnered national and international attention due to the suspects actions and the first use of a 50 caliber rifle to kill a lone offender. Increasingly, law enforcement after this incident began to discuss the need for large caliber rifles given the circumstances in Dallas and elsewhere. Law enforcement continues to come across 50 Cal rifles either from seizure, donations, or purchase. Typically, they arrived via the seizure route usually connected to drug arrests. When defendant cases have run through the court process, SWAT teams usually pick up the rifles and they sit dormant in arms room only brought out for the occasional show-n-tell. With the advent of more LE use, teams have been opting to purchase new rifles in lieu of traditional routes and establish true Large Caliber Rifle Programs under the Sniper Operational umbrella.
Engine disablement through the use of a large caliber rifles has proven to be a safe and effective means for incident resolution when called upon. SWAT teams considering a Large Caliber Rifle Program should go about it properly and not sabotage their efforts through lack of formal training and/or lack of funds to support the program. Failure to support with training time and budgeting could potentially increase agency liability when deployed. In today’s environment now more than ever SWAT teams must document specialized training and specialized weapons as the magnifying glass continues to be placed over SWAT operations. With a well structured program supported by your agency, large caliber rifles can continue to be an asset when called upon to safely resolve incidents.