Defend the house: Protecting police buildings and personnel
Police leaders must act to protect these valuable resources ‒ and the personnel within ‒ from the violence of the mob
In 2018 and 2019, I was busy giving presentations to police officers from across the nation on important tactical lessons from the 1960s and 1970s. I had a strong feeling we would see a dramatic increase in political violence in America in the coming years, and it was important for these officers to look back at the civil unrest that plagued America decades ago to understand what was coming their way and to understand what did and didn’t work for the police in that era.
Defend the house
One of the issues I discussed in my presentations was the need to prepare for attacks against police stations, jails, courts and other buildings associated with law enforcement. These kinds of facilities were frequently attacked in the late 1960s and early 1970s, resulting in police deaths and injuries across the nation, and I felt there was a significant risk we would experience similar attacks again, soon.
I could tell some of the officers in my presentations were surprised that I was concerned about this. Some acted as if I was an alarmist for suggesting it. These officers seemed to think that nobody would be bold or stupid enough to attack a police station full of cops ‒ this wasn’t Iraq, after all.
Well, how about now? In 2020, we saw rioters burn a police station in Minneapolis to the ground, seize, occupy and destroy a police station in Seattle, vandalize a police station and set fire to a courthouse in Oakland and attack numerous other police department buildings in cities across America. In Portland, rioters besieged the federal courthouse for over two months, prompting federal officials to send reinforcements to hold the ground and defend both the property and the workers inside from incessant attacks.
With this dangerous reality in mind, here are some of the ways police leaders can safeguard personnel, equipment, prisoners and vital records from the violent actions of the mob:
1. Layered defense
This basic concept must drive all security preparations. Redundant layers of security enhance our ability to protect our people, property and resources. In the same way that police advise a homeowner to create a defense in depth with a clear zone, lighting, cameras, fencing, locks, alarms, a dog, and finally, a firearm, LE agencies have to erect multiple barriers to entry.
A layered defense considers both external and internal measures. Patrols, clear zones, lighting, fencing, cameras, door locks and sentries are all critical components of securing the exterior of a police station, but it’s important to have internal protections as well, in case an attacker gets inside, or an insider threat emerges. Don’t spend all of your effort on the outside, and leave the inside vulnerable. What good does it do to have fences, guard shacks and metal detectors on the outside of a police station, if a person can simply hop the front counter and freely access the interior workspaces once they’re inside the building? If a stolen truck crashes through a wall to create a new “door,” can the interior workspace be sealed and secured in a compartmentalized fashion to limit access and defend personnel?
Security isn’t just about “stuff,” either. Fences, lighting, cameras, locks and guns are all important tools, but your people need to be well trained in security protocols and defensive measures for any of these tools to help. A non-sworn, front desk clerk who hasn’t been trained to detect and report threats is a critical weakness. So is a logistics clerk who brings unscreened packages into the interior of a building, a worker who fails to properly secure a door, administrative personnel who don’t know how to respond to an active shooter, or an officer who hasn’t trained to move through structures, clear rooms and defend the station.
3. Vehicle exclusion
In an era of vehicle-borne, improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), every law enforcement building should incorporate an appropriate buffer between the structure and uncontrolled vehicle traffic. This buffer should be extended even further out from the building, via temporary road closures and barriers, during periods of increased threat. Any vehicle ‒ whether it belongs to the agency or the public ‒ should be subject to appropriate screening, based on the threat level. No vehicles should be allowed to park close to the building, including delivery vehicles.
4. Restricted access
Government buildings must balance security with public access. The public needs to have access to government services, but it must be controlled in a fashion where the risks of personnel-borne, improvised explosive devices (PBIEDs), gun/knife attacks and other threats are properly mitigated. This may require new architecture and screening processes, as well as the addition of guards or sentries. Additionally, it may require police to establish videoconferencing capabilities that allow them to provide remote assistance for some administrative transactions (complaints, requesting and filing reports, etc.) where personal contact is unnecessary.
A law enforcement building must have a robust firefighting capability, and properly trained personnel. Fire extinguishers, fire detection and sprinkler systems are certainly required by code in police stations already, but these basic preparations should be expanded to provide officers the training and capability to combat arson and incendiary weapon attacks, because fire personnel may not be able to respond if the scene is surrounded by a hostile mob. At the highest threat levels, trained fire personnel and equipment should be stationed at the police station, jail, or courthouse itself, to guarantee availability and reduce response time.
6. Vehicle security
Securing the motor pool and parking areas is vital in an elevated threat environment. Police vehicles keep officers mobile and ready to respond quickly to emergencies, so these resources must be protected. Additionally, police vehicles contain vital resources such as weapons, armor, uniforms, personal protective equipment (PPE), munitions, radios and other critical items that must be safeguarded to prevent their destruction and theft.
Passive measures like lighting, cameras, signs and fences are not enough to protect these valuable assets during periods of increased threat. Agencies might need to enhance shelter and shielding options, disperse vehicles, move them to a safer location, develop entry/exit control points, or post sentries to protect them. Officers should also be taught and encouraged to conduct security walkarounds on their vehicles ‒ before touching or entering them ‒ when they draw them from the pool or return to them in the field after they have been left unattended.
It’s also important to protect the privately owned vehicles of the agency’s employees. These could be inviting targets for a mob bent on destruction, tampering, kidnapping, assault, or intelligence/surveillance. Although these are not agency-owned resources, the agency’s preparedness will suffer if employees don’t have a safe means to travel between their homes and work.
7. Fighting and observation positions
Suitable fighting and observation positions should be established to allow officers to detect threats and defend the building. These positions should be properly located, reinforced, armored, equipped, protected and camouflaged (including from the air ‒ the enemy has drones, too). All avenues of approach must be covered, and there must be secondary positions to fall back to in the event the primary is compromised. Some of these positions should extend beyond the footprint of the police building itself ‒ we would rather detect and engage threats at a distance from our front door.
8. Redundant capabilities
If the facility serves as the primary dispatch/communications center, command and control location, motor pool, or armory, then it’s important to establish redundant backups for these functions at another site. A police force cannot afford to lose these capabilities across an entire city or sector because the principal facility is under attack, or must be abandoned because the position is untenable (i.e., on fire).
9. Patrols and sentries
Agencies should consider adding roving patrols and stationary sentries when threat levels are elevated, to prevent access to the facility. Administrators may balk at the drain on manpower, but if the base of operations is not secure, then the effectiveness of officers in the field is compromised.
When the threat level is elevated, it’s important to upgrade security protocols for deliveries and pickups ‒ including mail, consumables, food and water, trash, evidence, prisoners and other necessities. It’s also important to ensure that enough critical resources (food, water, medical supplies, PPE) are stored in reserve to safeguard against supply chain interruptions or allow personnel who have sheltered in place to weather an attack for a reasonable period.
11. Quick reaction force
When a police facility is under attack, it’s important to have a mobile response team outside the perimeter to break up the assault, and potentially rescue trapped forces inside. Such a team might also be required to escort fire personnel into the scene. In large departments, this team may come from another precinct or district, but smaller agencies may need to rely on mutual aid for help.
It’s generally not a good plan to place this burden on patrol assets that are in the field, because it’s likely they will be dealing with their own problems and will be unavailable to respond. Similarly, a tactical (SWAT) team may be otherwise engaged when needed. Therefore, the quick reaction force should be a true force-in-reserve, dedicated solely to this particular mission during periods where the threat level is elevated.
No time like today
You can’t fix the problem that your police department building was poorly located, or was designed without defensive considerations in mind, but you can do your best to address these weaknesses and improve your lot.
The unthinkable for many officers is here. The building that once felt like a safe haven is now under attack. It’s time for us to stop thinking of our buildings as administrative workspaces, and to start thinking of them as targets and fighting positions.
Get busy, and be safe out there.