For many years, the use of ballistic shields in law enforcement was restricted to SWAT and drug teams. However, many have recognized the need to have ballistic shields available for patrol officers. In 1999, this became readily apparent following the Columbine High School shooting. It is now a widely recognized fact that patrol officers will be the first officers on scene, and additional ballistic protection will help patrol officers save lives.
Active killer incidents aren’t the only time patrol officers could reap the benefits of having ballistic shields available. As a matter of fact, ballistic shields are most frequently deployed on calls such as building searches, shots fired investigations, armed subjects and many other common patrol calls. If ballistic shields are available to patrol officers, it creates a much safer working environment for those officers and our communities.
If ballistic shields are available to patrol officers, it creates a much safer working environment for those officers and our communities.
Selecting a shield
A few years ago, I recognized the need for patrol officers at my department to have better access to additional ballistic shields. At the time, the ballistic shields used by the patrol division were kept in the patrol sergeant vehicles. If an officer had an immediate need for a shield, they had to wait for a sergeant to arrive on scene. Since officers were nearly always the first to arrive on scene, it didn’t make sense to restrict the shields to the sergeant vehicles.
The other problem I identified was that the ballistic shields used in the patrol division were all hand-me-downs from SWAT. The shields were still usable, but they were old, heavy and bulky compared to modern armor. As a result, the shields were frequently left behind instead of deployed on calls. I started contacting training colleagues around the United States and Canada and discovered something truly incredible: My department was not unique. Many agencies operated the same way.
At this point, I conducted a needs assessment that included meeting with each patrol team as well as officers and supervisors assigned to other units to determine what features they considered important when selecting a new ballistic shield. There was a near-unanimous consensus that new ballistic shields for patrol be rifle-rated, as lightweight as possible, come equipped with a viewport to aid in maneuvering around obstacles while using the shield and equipped with a supportive grip system. The addition of a light mounted on the strike face of the shield was viewed as less desirable due to the additional weight.
I also needed to familiarize myself with the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) standards and the different manufacturers and products it offered. The NIJ has established standards covering performance, workmanship, labeling, material guidelines and testing for ballistic shields. NIJ Standard-0108.01 Level IIIA shields are designed to offer lightweight protection against common pistol rounds such as 9mm, .40, .45 and .357 mag. This level of protection can weigh five to 12 pounds, depending on features and the size of the shield. Some of the unique features of these shields include models that are made of soft armor and some that are foldable, making for a very compact package. This can be an important factor considering the amount of radio, computer and other equipment today’s patrol officers are expected to pack into their patrol car.
NIJ Standard-0108.01 Level III rifle-grade shields have incorporated ballistic technology that offers lightweight and usable protection against common rifle rounds. Level III shields are designed to defeat handgun rounds, as well as 7.62x39mm rifle rounds (commonly seen in the SKS and AK-47 pattern rifles), 7.62x51mm NATO rifle rounds (also referred to as .308 Winchester) and 5.56x45mm NATO rifle rounds (commonly seen in AR-15 pattern rifles). The added protection from rifle rounds increases the weight of these ballistic shields. These shields can weigh 12–25 pounds, depending on size and configuration.
The weight factor is an important consideration and should be taken seriously. Modern ballistic shields are lighter weight and more user-friendly, offering increased maneuverability and functionality than in years past, resulting in more ballistic protection from a similar-sized shield. All other things being equal, a lighter shield is safer and easier to use. A heavier shield is harder to hold onto and more difficult to stabilize while moving. As the shield operator starts to fatigue from the weight of the shield, it is more likely the shield will drop down, exposing officers to potential danger. A heavy shield is more difficult to deploy from vehicles making it more likely to damage the shield or patrol vehicle during deployment.
The addition of a viewport on a ballistic shield can add a significant cost increase for each shield. Generally speaking, the price increase for adding a viewport is between $450–$1,800 per shield, depending on the manufacturer. However, this option makes it much easier to maneuver while using the shield. Without the viewport, the shield operator needs to lean out to see around the shield. This exposes the operator to the threat and potentially causes the operator to get in the way of other officers and their ability to see around the shield. The viewport aids the shield operator by providing the ability to navigate around obstacles and avoid tripping hazards.
Another important feature to look at is how the operator carries the shield. A supportive carry and grip system allow the shield operator to utilize the shield with less effort and over a longer period. Especially on long, drawn-out searches or calls for service, a system that provides a comfortable way for the operator to carry the shield is crucial to proper use. Rigid handles, comfortable padding, forearm straps, suspenders and other systems can make extended deployments more comfortable, ensuring the shield is used and used properly.
After selecting the ballistic shields that are right for your department, the next step is to ensure all potential users are trained on how to properly deploy this valuable piece of equipment. Training should discuss the types of calls for service and the situations where a handheld ballistic shield could be useful. Once context has been discussed, training can move on to the basics of how the shield is stored and deployed. After this, it’s on to the fun stuff!
When it comes to the practical application of a ballistic shield, training should cover various methods of use during building searches and room clearing. Building search training should cover the use of one and two officer shield teams and everyone’s favorite building search problem — stairway tactics. Ballistic shield stacking techniques should be taught, providing additional options to patrol officers. Additionally, basic CQB and perimeter operations should be addressed since these are situations where patrol officers could be expected to deploy a ballistic shield. Finally, arrest team strategies and techniques should be covered to ensure officers understand how to use the shield as cover while communicating and detaining suspects.
When it comes to the live-fire range, officers should be trained on a variety of topics, including one- and two-hand shooting with the shield. Reload and malfunction drills should be performed so officers get the opportunity to perform these skills under controlled training conditions before the uncontrolled environment of a fight. Once these skills have been trained using handguns, it’s time to add the patrol rifles to the mix.
Ultimately, all these skills should be combined with a team of officers charged with addressing and solving a problem in scenario training. These scenarios could include a wide variety of situations, including injured officer rescues, approaches to doorways, threshold evaluation and port-and-cover window tactics.
If you’re searching for a high-quality ballistic shield training class, there are some fantastic options available. Some manufacturers offer training classes for law enforcement agencies and the use of their products. Additionally, there are different training organizations such as Team One Network and the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) that provide training classes on the use of ballistic shields and ballistic shield instructor certification courses.
Ballistic shields: a “must-have”
It’s no longer good enough to make a patrol officer wait for the arrival of a supervisor or SWAT officer to deploy a ballistic shield. Patrol officers are the first responders to nearly every call for service, and the first to arrive should be properly equipped to save lives. It has become clear that portable, lightweight, ballistic protection has become a necessity for our patrol officers.