Adapting to Today’s Threats
By Stuart Cameron, M.S.
In some ways, law enforcement agencies resemble a military organization. Officers wear uniforms, carry weapons, respond to drill commands, and work within a hierarchical rank structure. Of course, the goals and objectives of police departments differ significantly from those of the armed services.
However, in the struggle to address today’s extreme dangers, agencies have looked to the military for guidance. Modern departments must prepare to face threats, such as active shooters, terrorists, and related mass-casualty events, that evolve at an ever-increasing pace.
As agencies develop over time, they strive to engage this changing landscape and keep officers and communities safe.
Aggressors continue to become more threatening to officers and communities. For instance, mass shooters—sometimes protected by body armor—more commonly use assault rifles, which first appeared during World War II.1 These weapons allow perpetrators to shoot accurately over long distances, fire rapidly, reload quickly, and—in most cases—penetrate standard-issue law enforcement protective gear.2
Attackers have used assault rifles to kill civilians and officers in events that have garnered widespread attention. Such incidents highlight the need for police agencies to adapt to evolving threats.
Chief Cameron serves with the Suffolk County, New York, Police Department.
Two Well-Known Attacks
On August 1, 1966, a day that introduced many people to the reality of senseless mass shootings, Charles Whitman carried out a deadly attack at the University of Texas in Austin. He shot 46 people, injuring 31 and ultimately killing 15. A former sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps, Whitman armed himself with a stockpile of ammunition and several long guns—including an M-3 carbine and a 12-gauge shotgun—before taking a position atop a 300-foot tower.3
Law enforcement personnel found themselves at a considerable disadvantage because Whitman used military tactics to methodically shoot persons in his line of fire. An attempt at deploying a small plane with a sharpshooter failed after Whitman began firing at the craft.4
After approximately 90 minutes, officers ended the siege despite lacking modern equipment. They improvised their tactics and repurposed equipment to counter the attack and aid the injured. Armored cash-in-transit vans served as ambulances to evacuate wounded civilians in the line of fire.5
On July 7, 2016, in Dallas—about 200 miles north—another military-trained veteran launched an unprovoked act of violence in which he killed five officers, wounded seven others, and injured two civilians. Armed with an assault rifle and a large amount of ammunition, he presented a sizeable challenge for officers seeking to end the 6-hour siege.6
Unlike Whitman, who appeared to indiscriminately target anyone within his range, this individual aimed for specific officers in a precise, malicious, and targeted assault. Police ended the attack through the use of a repurposed bomb robot that delivered a lethal explosive charge.7
Events of this type have become more common in news reports. Mass shooters have used assault weapons in many attacks that vary in purpose, setting, and location.
- Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012
- Movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012
- Terrorist attack in San Bernadino, California, in 2015
- Pulse nightclub terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida, in 2016
- Route 91 Harvest festival shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2017
The perpetrator in the most recent assault used a rifle equipped with a bump stock. Essentially, he had a fully automatic weapon.8
Police and Community Safety
Law enforcement agencies must consider appropriate countermeasures carefully. How far is too far?
Clearly, departments should not use many of the weapons and procedures common in the military. They must use de-escalation tactics whenever possible and always use reasonable force. Agencies also must scrupulously avoid collateral damage.
However, police departments need to prepare themselves to protect officers and people in the community from modern threats. Important considerations include training, tactics, equipment, and medical procedures.
Training and Tactics
After the University of Texas shooting, many agencies instituted SWAT training. Although some of the instruction may resemble military training, police departments also emphasize using less lethal weaponry and working with crisis negotiation teams. Agencies teach officers to use force only when de-escalation techniques have proven unsuccessful or when suspects actively hurt people. For instance, officers may encounter such scenarios during barricade situations.9
The 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, also influenced police training by highlighting the need for officers to learn new tactics in preparation for active shooter attacks. Agencies across the United States began teaching their patrol officers the concept of Immediate Action Rapid Deployment (IARD), which involves the first-arriving officers acting quickly to engage and neutralize threats, thus saving lives. Many departments have evolved in this concept, shrinking the size of entry teams to further reduce the time needed to enter scenes and engage attackers.10
To help officers succeed in encounters with mass shooters, the use of various long guns—primarily patrol rifles—has increased among many police departments.11 Certainly, an officer carrying only a handgun would have an extreme disadvantage when facing a suspect with a high-powered rifle.
Also, because some shooters wear protective body armor, patrol rifles with the ability to penetrate such protection can give officers a potentially necessary option.12
Generally, police tactical officers deploy with heavy body armor and ballistic helmets, analogous to soldiers in combat. Some agencies issue wearable protective gear to their entire patrol force due to the threat of adversaries armed with assault rifles.13
One SWAT team member responding to the Pulse nightclub attack avoided death or serious injury when his ballistic helmet stopped a bullet. This incident garnered a lot of attention and resulted in increased demand for upgraded equipment among law enforcement personnel nationwide.14
Agencies with the financial means can purchase armored trucks designed explicitly for law enforcement SWAT teams. Others will need to obtain surplus military tactical vehicles.15 Departments may have a blend of both.
Some people erroneously compare such vehicles with military tanks. However, these trucks lack the prominent offensive main gun and movement tracks and, thus, differ fundamentally. They primarily serve to protect officers and civilians.16
Armored trucks shield officers during hazardous events. For instance, law enforcement personnel neutralized the individuals responsible for the San Bernardino, California, attack while safely inside these vehicles.17
Agencies also use such trucks to safely evacuate wounded victims from hazardous areas.18 Occasionally, repurposed cash-in-transit vans have served this purpose.19
Of course, officers on patrol without armored vehicles remain the most vulnerable. As a result, agencies, such as the New York, New York, Police Department (NYPD), have begun adding ballistic door and window panels to their patrol cars and ballistic glass to their command-post vehicles. These enhancements follow the death of an NYPD officer.20 Some vehicle manufacturers offer such protection as an option on new patrol cars.21
Many police departments also have looked to the military for guidance in mass-casualty care. To this end, the Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC) model, based on military procedures, has facilitated saving lives.22
For Additional Information
Committee for Tactical Emergency Casualty Care
Created by a group of first-response experts, this care model recognizes that initial treatment protocols may occur during threatening conditions and that compressible bleeding control constitutes the highest priority to minimize loss of life.23 Agencies planning for the prospect of a mass shooting with numerous trauma injuries can employ the proven TECC.
“…police departments need to prepare themselves to protect officers and people in the community from modern threats.”
Many civilians have become familiar with the appearance of SWAT teams by watching movies and television shows. Deploying officers with tactical equipment as a visual deterrent has become an accepted law enforcement practice in various parts of the country. In fact, members of the public may find the sight of these officers reassuring.24
However, some agencies have faced scrutiny for their military-like appearance. Many people believe that civilian police authorities should not use equipment and weapons, including armored vehicles and robots, found in the armed services.25
Critics should recognize that police departments employ such equipment simply to keep officers and civilians safe. It may appear as an escalation. However, providing enhanced safety for officers can allow them to de-escalate situations and employ less lethal options, such as conducted energy devices, impact weapons, and chemical irritants.26
Perhaps transparency and perception lie at the core of this issue. Citizens who see police officers emerging from the back of a large armored vehicle certainly may make comparisons with the military. Agencies should explain the need for and use of such equipment when appropriate. For instance, officers could give presentations to students and communities or join neighborhood groups.
Surplus military vehicles could appear less threatening if departments fully repurposed them for civilian use. This may involve removing weapons brackets, gun turrets, and other accessories that have no role in their new application. Further, police agencies can repaint them to match other marked units in the fleet, thereby making it clear that only civilian law enforcement personnel use the trucks.
Clearly labeling vehicles to indicate their intended usage also may prove helpful. For instance, departments that use high-axle vehicles to respond to flooding or heavy snow can mark them with terms, such as “Disaster Response” or “Rescue,” to clarify their purpose.
Agencies must practice discretion and forethought prior to procuring such equipment. They should have discussions regarding how civilians may perceive these units. Every community is unique, and what one jurisdiction finds acceptable could prove differently elsewhere.
As police departments respond to progressively more dangerous acts of violence, they must adapt to protect officers and civilians. However, they should balance this evolution with community engagement and support.
Although agencies may face challenges, they can integrate specialized equipment and tactics while preserving a successful community policing strategy. Departments should limit the use of such equipment to appropriate incidents and educate the public on its necessity, thus increasing transparency and trust. Often, pushback from the community stems from a lack of understanding about police procedures and current threats.
“Although agencies may face challenges, they can integrate specialized equipment and tactics while preserving a successful community policing strategy.”
Chief Cameron can be reached at email@example.com.
1 For example, see William Saletan, “Armored and Dangerous,” Slate, July 23, 2012, accessed October 22, 2018, https://slate.com/technology/2012/07/the-aurora-shooting-bulletproof-vests-swat-gear-and-body-armor-refute-the-nra.html; and Michael Peck, “The Five Deadliest U.S. Weapons of War from World War II,” The National Interest, January 25, 2015, accessed October 22, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-5-deadliest-us-weapons-war-world-war-ii-12105.
2 M.L. Nestel, “How Assault Rifles Have Played a Prominent Role in U.S. Mass Shootings,” ABC News, November 7, 2017, accessed October 22, 2018, https://abcnews.go.com/US/assault-rifles-played-prominent-role-us-mass-shootings/story?id=50962470.
3 Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1997).
6 Manny Fernandez, Richard Perez-Pena, and Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Five Dallas Officers Were Killed as Payback, Police Chief Says,” New York Times, July 8, 2016, accessed October 22, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/09/us/dallas-police-shooting.html?_r=0.
8 Nick Penzenstadler, “A Year After Vegas Shooting, ATF E-mails Reveal Blame, Alarm Over Bump Stocks,” USA Today, October 1, 2018, accessed October 22, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/10/01/year-after-vegas-shooting-atf-e-mails-reveal-blame-alarm-over-bump-stocks/1432137002/.
9 Robert L. Snow, “The Birth and Evolution of the SWAT Unit,” Police, April 1, 1997, accessed October 22, 2018, http://www.policemag.com/channel/swat/articles/1997/04/the-birth-and-evolution-of-the-swat-unit/page/2.aspx.
10 For additional information, see Mike Odle, "Immediate Action/Rapid Deployment (From Patrol Response to Contemporary Problems: Enhancing Performance of First Responders Through Knowledge and Experience), in Patrol Response to Contemporary Problems: Enhancing Performance of First Responders Through Knowledge and Experience, ed. John A. Kolman (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2006), 173-96; and "5 Gunfights That Changed Law Enforcement," Police, May 4, 2011, accessed October 22, 2018, http://www.policemag.com/channel/patrol/articles/2011/05/5-gunfights-that-changed-law-enforcement/page/2.aspx.
11 Mike Rayburn, “Here’s Why All Police Need a Patrol Rifle,” PoliceOne, August 22, 2016, accessed October 22, 2018, https://www.policeone.com/police-products/firearms/articles/212691006-Heres-why-all-police-need-a-patrol-rifle/.
13 Mike Wood, “Bridging the Gap Between SWAT and Patrol,” PoliceOne, April 17, 2018, accessed October 23, 2018, https://www.policeone.com/active-shooter/articles/473635006-Bridging-the-gap-between-SWAT-and-patrol/.
14 Christopher Brennan, “Orlando Police Officer Seen Smiling in Photo After Kevlar Helmet Saved His Life During Pulse Nightclub Shooting,” New York Daily News, June 14, 2016, accessed October 23, 2018, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/orlando-officer-smiling-kevlar-helmet-saved-life-article-1.2672918.
15 “Police Depts. Add Armored Vehicles,” Government Fleet, February 8, 2017, accessed October 23, 2018, https://www.government-fleet.com/138976/police-depts-add-armored-vehicles.
16 Dan Marcou, “8 Ways to Overcome Public Opposition and Acquire an Armored Vehicle,” Police One, September 12, 2016, accessed October 23, 2018, https://www.policeone.com/police-products/vehicles/specialty/articles/220283006-8-ways-to-overcome-public-opposition-and-acquire-an-armored-vehicle/.
17 Frank Straub, Jennifer Zeunik, and Ben Gorban, “Lessons Learned from the Police Response to the San Bernadino and Orlando Terrorist Attacks,” CTC Sentinel 10, no. 5 (May 2017), accessed October 23, 2018, https://ctc.usma.edu/lessons-learned-from-the-police-response-to-the-san-bernardino-and-orlando-terrorist-attacks/.
20 Anthony M. DeStefano, “NYPD Will Test Armoring of Patrol Cars, Bratton Says,” January 20, 2016 accessed October 23, 2018, http://www.newsday.com/news/new-york/bill-bratton-nypd-will-test-armoring-of-patrol-cars-1.11346812.
21 Roselynne Reyes, “2017 Police Vehicles,” Government Fleet, November 14, 2016, accessed October 23, 2018, https://www.government-fleet.com/157064/2017-police-vehicles.
22 Committee for Tactical Emergency Casualty Care, accessed October 23, 2018, http://c-tecc.org/.
24 Snow; and Paul M. Walters, “SWAT Teams Can Be Front-and-Center in Community-Based Policing,” National Police Foundation, accessed October 23, 2018, https://www.policefoundation.org/swat-teams-can-be-front-and-center-in-community-based-policing/.
25 “Bad Perception, but Some Appreciation for SWAT Teams,” The Municipal, October 29, 2012, accessed October 23, 2018, http://www.themunicipal.com/2012/10/bad-perception-but-some-appreciation-for-swat-teams/.
26 Amaury Murgado, “Less-Lethal Weapon Options,” Police, March 6, 2013, accessed October 23, 2018, http://www.policemag.com/channel/weapons/articles/2013/03/less-lethal-weapon-options.aspx.