Rise In Active Shooters, Violence Against Officers Make Time Right To Reintroduce The Rifle To Patrol

Date 03.15.2016

Written by Shawn Simpson

Has the time come to reintegrate the rifle back into mainstream policing? From the days of the old west until the era of notorious criminals such as Capone, Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, the rifle has played a vital and necessary role in law enforcement. However due to a myriad of circumstances from political pressure, to budgetary constraints to public opinion, law enforcement administration has abandoned this necessary tool in favor of our trusty sidearm and the shotgun.

Even the old west can account for active shooter situations. The roaring 20s were sensationalized with famous gun battles in the streets between rival gangs and underground mafia organizations. On August 1, 1966, we, as modern day Americans,  got our first glimpse of what an active shooter situation really looked and felt like. On that somber day Charles Whitman climbed a bell tower at the University of Texas and over a 90-minute period of terror he killed 14 people and wounded 32 more before police could race up the tower and end the violence.

For those that don’t realize that there was a world prior to the 1980s a gun fight in 1997 broke out between the LAPD and a group of heavily armed bank robbers, and it played out on live TV. Officers on patrol observed the individuals enter the bank. As the assailants fled the officers, only armed with 9mm pistols and shotguns, attempted to subdue the gun men, who were dressed in full body armor and armed with a Bushmaster XM15 and a HK-91 rifle with high capacity magazines. The fierce urban warfare gun battle lasted for 44 minutes outside the bank. The fighting was so intense and the police were so out gunned that officers ran to a nearby sporting goods to attain AR-15 rifles.  Because first responder officers could only hold the front line, the horror continued until a hodgepodge of S.W.A.T officers arrived with the firepower to match the assailants. Up to that time, 11 officers and seven innocent bystanders had been wounded. One of the robbers committed suicide on national TV. In all, more than 2,000 rounds had been traded between the criminals and law enforcement.

As these stories and the current issues affecting law enforcement remind us, the constant threat of terrorism is ever present and seemingly increasing. Who serves as the initial responder to these events? In many cases the answer is the everyday patrol officer.  We have seen these tragic events play out on U.S. soil far too often. Obviously there are far too many horrific events around the globe to dissect individually, but three recent high-profile shootings come to mind; the Charlie Hebdo, Paris nightclub and the San Bernardino shootings. And as we have seen domestically and abroad, mass shootings are only one form of terror that could be used.  We also need to consider that first responders (not military) could face suicide and C.B.R.N.E bombings and attacks.

From disgruntled employees to mentally ill to bullied and heartbroken kids and those who wish to just cause panic and horror, many have chosen to “go out” in their perceived blaze of glory. Yet again it is the everyday officer on patrol that must respond to these events first. The patrol officers, including EMS, use conventional tactics to contain the situation until specialized units arrive. Because many of these desperate souls who commit these acts are doing so with superior firepower, the responding officers must have the right and opportunity to protect both themselves and the public.

In light of these above examples and the hundreds or maybe even thousands more we can think of, how do the everyday patrol cops defend their lives and those of the public, or better yet, prevent or shorten an attack? I believe that it is time that patrol must be properly trained and armed with rifles. A rifle in the hands of an assailant places a handgun armed police officer at a fatal disadvantage according to the IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center Board. The study by the Violence Policy Center indicates that one in every five police deaths in the line of duty have been the result of shots fired by assault rifles.

Some of the advantages of outfitting patrol with rifles include:

  1. Accuracy – Our trusty sidearm and shotguns with 00 Buck are great tools for situations up to 50 yards, but they quickly begin to lose their accuracy after that. Most ballistic experts will tell you that a slug will seriously stray after 100 yards. Because 00 Buck are essentially nine projectiles one cannot be ignorant of their backdrop with the naturally occurring spread. The .223 caliber rifles are far more accurate. True, the rifle round is traveling farther, but the fact of knowing where your sited shot is going will give the officer who is engaged in a deadly force situation more confidence.
  2. Penetration - The projectile penetration factor also favors the rifle. Some versions of the .223 round are designed to fragment when they strike a solid surface. The IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center Board cited that the .223 round was effective for penetrating body armor, but not as effective in the penetration of walls and other environmental barriers than standard issued police handgun ammunition, and are therefore safer in urban settings.
  3. Time & Distance – This is perhaps one of the most important and compelling advantages. We need to start to realize that not every situation demands that we bum-rush into the fight to save the day. Remember that time and distance are on our side, but while we wait for backup we need to be properly armed against superior fire power.

We have to safely assume that any rifle in the hands of an assailant has an effective range greater than a quarter mile or 500 yards. Having an additional tool at our disposal during these encounters allows the officer to return fire at farther ranges. Combined with the accuracy and penetration potential, the criminal is forced to stay in a confined area. Because the rifle platform can carry up to 30 rounds of ammunition in one magazine and multiple magazines can be carried on a standard lightweight tactical vest, officers can, if necessary, stay engaged longer thus saving the lives of the public and fellow officers.

This argument for reintroducing the rifle to patrol officers  to protect themselves and the public  must be accompanied by the appropriate training. Simply giving a cop on the beat an AR-15 and sending them on their way is a recipe for disaster. Training needs must exceed a simple squeeze off of 30 rounds during the academy and the yearly qualification on the range. This training needs to be more all-encompassing than standard pistol and shotgun training. With the rise of these types of critical incidents and active shooter events we need to be prepared and know how to engage when the moment arrives.

One deterrent that may contribute to resistance of introducing the rifle is the expensive cost of training. Rifle training can be expensive. Many departments’ ranges are not properly equipped for rifles, which would call for ranges to be reengineered or require travel to other locations. One solution to the costly training is for  departments to invest in non-lethal training devices that have the same form, fit and function as a real rifle to use during training drills.

The long shot is awe-inspiring and I do call for time and distance to be used; we still have to get close to the bad guy when the time comes. This is especially needed when we train CQB along with transition and malfunction drills. Knowing how to properly clear a room with a rifle versus a handgun is night and day. Your sweep and foot movements are different, not to mention that you now have an additional 14 to 20 inches of additional barrel to account for.  

Departments also need to incorporate certified rifle training curriculum. Most agencies have the ability to share curriculum through POST or internally. Manufacturers will often provide certified skilled representatives to your location. There are also a number of private companies who can offer a syllabus and course exercises.

It is obvious to me that the backlash against police officers from the public is going to unfortunately continue and even rise. Considering this trend, it is necessary that we give the right tools and training to our front line peacekeepers.  Not doing so will only bring more senseless deaths and chaos.  If the criminals and terrorists knew that they would be met with a ready force they might give second thoughts to their plans.

Stay safe out there brothers and sisters in blue.

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Shawn Simpson is the Vice President of Business Development for UNIT Solutions. Shawn began his career as a Baltimore County Patrol Officer and later served as a senior investigative detective with the department. Previously he also served as the Security Logistics and Coordination Manager for the Denver International Airport.