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When the wolf is at the door: Prevention and response to a station breach

Our buildings and our officers inside have been the target of criminal assaults and civil disorder incidents for quite a long time

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What is a warning?

One definition is that it is a statement or event that indicates a possible or impending danger, problem, or another unpleasant situation.

When it comes to law enforcement, there are frequently occasions where cues should have alerted an individual officer, or even an entire agency of a looming threat, but all too often, those indicators go unaddressed, leading to tragic outcomes. In the aftermath, there is usually a renewed interest in taking steps to prevent such a situation from repeating, but with time, shrinking budgets, changing attitudes, or a change in command, we regularly turn our attention to whatever new issue demands our focus. Many times, the remedy to preventing a recurrence is too narrow in scope, fixing one specific issue, but missing the overall big picture. Warnings can be very important to our survival.

[Police1 resource: Download a station security checklist at the end of the article.]

My question related to the topic at hand is this: How many incidents or attacks must occur at police facilities across the nation before we begin to see this as a possible or impending danger to every facility?

Do the research. There is no shortage of news stories and surveillance camera videos spanning decades, revealing incident after incident taking place either on the grounds or inside the walls of police stations. Too often, these result in injuries or deaths. You’ll find reports of subjects firing on police buildings and vehicles from adjacent lots or streets, people making entry and attacking with firearms, edged weapons and even chainsaws, fires being set by angry mobs, and vehicles being driven through entranceways.

While some may choose to halt their research after finding just a few recent events and declare it an “upward trend,” the truth is that our buildings and our officers inside have been the target of criminal assaults and civil disorder incidents for quite a long time. There is nothing in recent domestic or world events to suggest that we will see a decline any time soon. An assault can occur for whatever reason, by any person, at any time. To simply say: “It won’t happen here,” is to live in denial of the truth.

In this article, we will discuss the importance of proactive planning, tactical breach response procedures and the need to always remain alert while working at any police facility. Although some associate terrorism with this type of attack, there are many reasons why individuals would bring this type of violent action right to our doorstep.

While there is no single motive for attacks on law enforcement, some of the common motivators are:

  • Terrorism
  • Extremist views/anti-government sentiment
  • Social/labor unrest
  • Criminal retribution for past law enforcement action
  • Suicide or “suicide by cop”

It is vital that we continue to leverage intelligence-sharing efforts to remain vigilant for threats directed against law enforcement, whether from a single actor or group. Information should be shared both internally and regionally to help protect those in all police jurisdictions within a community. Every officer at every level should be encouraged to understand their responsibility in the gathering and sharing of intelligence so that future tragedies can be prevented.

Assessment and planning

Although it may seem to some in the neighborhood as a citadel, a police station is not a fortress. These locations can serve as a place of refuge for someone needing assistance or may be perceived by others to symbolize all that is wrong with government. Either way, the mere presence of a public safety facility means something to nearly everyone. And while each facility has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, it’s the weaknesses that need our attention.

What some may not realize is that there are times when the actions of the officers and agency employees can create weaknesses that can be exploited by those who would do us harm. What we do out of convenience can often be the opportunity a person needs to put their plan into action.

Proactive planning is the answer. Experience has taught us that criminals thoroughly plan their actions and will usually bring all the equipment they believe to be necessary to carry out their objectives. There are also situations where people in dire circumstances will seize upon the opportunity of the moment. It is critical that we take a proactive approach in preparing for either event by conducting threat assessments and creating response plans that address many different scenarios.

The information contained in the next few paragraphs are points to be taken into consideration during assessment and planning. It is not meant to be all-inclusive, and plans must be tailored to meet the capabilities of the facility and the personnel within. If your agency or region has the services of a Risk Vulnerability/Assessment Team available, those personnel should be included in the process.

Perimeter security

Police command staff has a responsibility to conduct a threat assessment of the grounds and buildings, particularly the area closest to the building and station entrance. Is it vulnerable to a trespasser or vehicle breach? Should fencing, bollards, passive or active vehicle barriers be installed?

Supervisors or designated personnel must conduct regular checks of the exterior of the building each shift but at varied times. Any suspicious vehicles or persons encountered should be confronted and investigated prior to reaching the building.

What is the terrain of the surrounding area? Are there ditches or other potential hiding spots? Is there high ground from which an actor could launch an assault? Are cameras and security lighting adequate? Is there a secure area for employee parking, and can employees be viewed walking into the facility?

Station access

Anyone entering a police facility beyond the front lobby should at a minimum be screened with a handheld metal detector. This should include non-department personnel, vendors, visitors, and persons needing to be fingerprinted or interviewed (criminal and otherwise). Station personnel should not relax these standards because of perceived friendliness or out of an effort to entice cooperation in an investigation.

Persons who are terminated from employment with the agency or from any company which does business with the department should be denied access and all personnel on station should be notified of their status.

Does your station have an open desk or counter where visitors are greeted? It’s not difficult to envision that this arrangement may make it easier for armed intruders to assault employees. For those facilities that do interact with the public through bullet-resistant glass in the lobby, are other exterior windows and walls also resistant?

Entry points

If station employees use a separate entrance from the public, supervisory personnel should not permit these doors to be propped open out of convenience. Any deviation from policy should be addressed. Garage doors should be kept closed when not attended. Employees should not share or allow others to observe cipher codes or other access information. Review the need to change codes if compromised.

Weapons security

I think it goes without saying that officers should NEVER leave personal or issued firearms unattended in view of non-department personnel, yet as you read this, you may already know the location of a few unsecured weapons at your own station, perhaps in a desk drawer or on a closet shelf. If an unauthorized intruder or suspect in the process of escaping should gain access to an interior office or locker room, what would he or she find? Always use approved lockers for weapon storage.

Workspaces shared by agency personnel must be kept clear of sharp objects that can be used to injure officers or take personnel hostage. Move items such as scissors or letter openers out of sight. Safeguard items that can be used to defeat handcuffs such as paper clips or pens. Look at your patrol room table. What do you see?

Situational awareness

Proactively hardening our grounds and buildings is only one part of the issue. Equally important is to prepare ourselves to be mentally and physically ready to respond when an attack occurs.

If suddenly confronted by an armed gunman, are you equipped to defend yourself or others for what may be a prolonged period? Officers at the station, regardless of duty status, should be armed, which includes walking to the station from their vehicle. If you are on duty, you should wear your soft body armor.

While on the station, do you know the location and accessibility of vital equipment, such as ballistic shields, long guns, extra ammunition, or flashlights if power is lost?

When assigned to station duties, you should not use the perceived security of the environment as justification for “dressing down” – not wearing body armor, wearing only a gun in a holster with no extra ammunition, less-lethal options, or handcuffs. While working near the lobby or areas shared with the public, avoid becoming distracted by casual conversations with co-workers, computers, phones, television, etc. Conduct frequent visual scans of the lobby and the behaviors of the persons present and challenge suspicious activity immediately.

Breach response

What is a “breach”? In law enforcement, we typically associate the word with the act of forcefully entering a structure to effect an arrest or conduct a search. The term can also be applied to someone breaching the security of a police facility.

Drills and training

Following the review of vulnerability assessments performed by agency leadership, a written contingency plan can be prepared taking into account the physical structure of the facility, its role and mission, and the capabilities of the personnel assigned. To ensure that personnel are familiar with the plan, conduct regular training drills using a variety of breach-type scenarios. Any live drill should be managed with safety as the highest priority and ensuring that all involved are aware of their role in the exercise.

When performing drills, all personnel should take part in the exercises, including administrative positions, clerks, dispatchers and other personnel who work at the facility on a regular basis. Employees at a minimum, should receive information similar to the Run – Hide – Fight curriculums in active shooter training offered at schools and workplaces.

Tactical considerations

The following tips are intended to be recommendations and points to consider when implementing a contingency plan or responding to an actual breach assault. It may be helpful to consult with subject matter experts within your department for additional guidance.

The “totality of the circumstances” and the method of attack being used will likely dictate the appropriate response option. Personnel will need to quickly evaluate the situation and take decisive action to gain control.

At the moment of attack, it is sometimes better to seek cover or concealment first, prior to attempting to repel an assault. Officers should not overlook the value of returning fire while moving to cover.

If time permits, immediately sound the alarm. Use caution in activation of the fire alarm, as doing so may cause others within the building to respond to pre-determined locations outside and potentially in harm’s way. Notify personnel of an emergency in the station by whatever means possible (PA system, radio, telephone). A simple, prearranged code word should be adopted so that all will know what is taking place. Provide the location of the attack. Notify patrol units to return to the station. Attempt to gain assistance from local police agencies through 911 or your local dispatch center.

Evaluate the type of attack and determine if you should shelter in place. If it is necessary to move, you should attempt to move to an interior room or other preplanned location. Ballistic shields can be staged in key locations and used to provide cover while moving. Consider hiding within a locked office.

Employees or civilian personnel on station at the time of an attack should be briefed on evacuation procedures and moved to a safe location or assembly point. Remember, uniformed officers often think that they will know what to do in any situation, but civilians and employees may not have the same instincts. When stuck for an answer, sometimes repetitive training can save the day. Injured persons who can move should be encouraged to do so.

Supervisors or designated personnel should determine if evacuation of the building is necessary. If the structure of the building is compromised or in the event of fire, you should evacuate to a location away from the direction of attack. Planning should include alternate assembly points. Consider the goal of the attack may be to lure officers outside. Ballistic shields can be used to cross open areas, and smoke grenades or fire extinguishers can be used to conceal movement. Preplanned assembly points should be at a location that can provide cover and concealment. Assembly points allow for accountability and the planning of a counter-offensive.

If feasible, officers should attempt to obtain additional weapons and ammunition from the arms locker. Again, if an evacuation order is given, recognize that building abandonment may surrender weapons to unauthorized persons.

If personnel must exit the building to confront the assailant, note that a limited number of available exits can potentially be used against officers. Evaluate the terrain for possible ambush points (high ground for snipers, vehicles, ditches). Consider that roof access could potentially swing the high ground in our favor. Also, consider the “Plus One” rule – there may be more than one assailant. Ensure officers can be readily identified.

When planning a counteroffensive, small unit tactics can be employed to locate the attacker, fix their position, outmaneuver and end the assault, however, nothing should preclude an individual officer from taking the immediate steps deemed necessary for self-protection or the protection of others.

Once the incident has been stabilized and all personnel accounted for, leadership should summon EMS/fire as needed, activate mutual aid agreements, initiate criminal investigation procedures, and attempt to restore operational control of the facility. Contingencies for the transfer of operations to another location should be pre-planned. All other “post-incident” procedures should be performed consistent with agency regulations.

Conclusion

This is not some crazy, doomsday-style scenario conceived by Hollywood screenwriters in films like “Terminator” and “Assault on Precinct 13.” The threat to our public safety buildings is real and happens more frequently than you think. Law enforcement leadership must always view previous incidents of assaults occurring at other police facilities as a cautionary tale and proactively take preventive measures to ensure that our house is a safe place for all members of the community and the personnel who work there.

Complete the box below to download a station security checklist.

Sergeant (Ret.) Robert Bemis retired in 2017 as a supervisor in the Operational Training Division at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Hershey. With over 30 years of law enforcement experience, Sgt. Bemis spent more than a decade as a trainer specializing in officer safety, self-defense and civil disorder tactics. He is the author of Forged in Scars & Stripes: A Trooper’s Victory Over Critical Injury. Sgt. Bemis is currently the Director of Training at Wrap Reality, a virtual reality training solution for law enforcement and corrections.

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