Breaching tools for every officer
The time has come for all law enforcement agencies to greatly expand their breaching tools and related training programs
By Philip Paz
When I was a young patrol officer, I and several other officers responded to a very violent domestic abuse call. The calling party was a woman who told the 911 call taker that her mother and the mother's boyfriend were fighting and the boyfriend had a gun. When we got there and converged on the house, the woman ran to meet us in the driveway. She told us her mother and boyfriend were in the house, and her boyfriend was beating her mother and he had a gun.
The woman was hustled off to safety. As we approached the house, officers split up with one group going to cover the back and perimeter of the house. The rest of us went to the front porch. I remember as we approached the front door we could hear a violent struggle, including slapping noises, with loud arguing and a female screaming for help. We knew immediately we were going to make entry in an attempt to rescue the mother.
The front door of the home was a heavy wooden door with a locked burglar bar door in front. Some attempts to kick and shoulder the fortified doors were useless and just moments into the situation we heard a gunshot from inside the door. At that time all sounds of struggle and screaming stopped. The boyfriend had shot the victim in the head killing her instantly. The incident turned into an overnight barricaded suspect standoff. The boyfriend gave up the next day.
Breaching challenges for patrol officers
On other occasions, I have seen officers blow out knees or injure shoulders trying to force doors open. Most officers have been humbled a time or two by a hardened or fortified door that would not open with kicks or other physical force. What was the commonality of most of these incidents? I personally believe it was not having access to breaching tools during rapidly escalating incidents.
During the early part of my 29 years working patrol with a major metropolitan police department, we were generally not issued nor received training with breaching tools. That was usually reserved for the tactical team or narcotics units who served warrants. When patrol officers found themselves needing breaching equipment, after kicking and shoulders failed, many times we would call the fire department to the scene with their specialized breaching tools for assistance. Sometimes fire would even breach the structure for us if the scene was secure. If that was not possible because of safety risks to the fire personnel, at least we still had their tools on hand.
The need for Breaching tool backpacks
Later during my career, our tactical team commander realized the importance of breaching tools to patrol units. He bought backpacks with breaching tools and issued them to several tactical officers who also worked in patrol.
This was obviously a step forward and was much appreciated by officers at the time. I believe, however, that the mass shooting in Uvalde and other similar incidents where first responding law enforcement officers have had to deal with locked or barricaded doors or windows show that the time has come for all law enforcement agencies to greatly expand their breaching tools and related training programs.
As I watched news coverage of Uvalde and the officers rescuing children and teachers through classroom windows, it reminded me of many similar scenes over the years watching news coverage of similar school shootings. Hopefully, people can escape through a window or any other opening available to them, but when I worked patrol I answered calls at schools with windows that could not be opened per design. Some windows were reinforced wire and glass and some windows even had wire mesh grating over the outside. Many times this was to prevent burglaries to the school but in a critical incident where people need to escape, it could be a severe hindrance. In such situations, a first responding officer with breaching tools could make the difference in enabling victims to escape.
Training and doctrine call for immediate entry
In the event of an active shooter who is killing people, first responding officers are expected to quickly make entry into the affected structure, find the shooter, engage him and end the threat. This is a very legitimate expectation and this is what officers should do. U.S. agencies have been training this concept since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Since then active shooter training has improved, and officers have access to better equipment such as body armor, plate carriers, advanced firearms with optics, training, and enhanced radio equipment that enable them to communicate with surrounding agencies during critical incidents.
Most importantly, active shooter response training and doctrine nationwide now calls for officers to make immediate entry to stop the active shooter. In my opinion, any officer who is not willing to accept this responsibility should be in another line of work.
These improvements are monumental for law enforcement and give us an advantage when dealing with an active threat. But again, if officers respond and they run into locked doors or windows, without keys or access cards, which is likely due to the rapidly evolving situation, their chances of making contact and engaging the shooter are greatly diminished.
While researching this issue I read an ABC News report that said "The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency tells districts that they may be able to delay an intruder by keeping exterior doors locked when they are not being monitored by staff. But schools will still need to ensure that employees adhere to 'policies mandating that all exterior doors remain closed outside of student arrival and dismissal times.' In its latest guidance, updated in February, the agency also wrote that districts should consider whether measures such as automatic locks on classroom doors could hinder emergency responders."
So how can our officers, who are responding to a critical incident or emergency response involving an active shooter or threat situation, deal with closed, fortified or locked doors or windows? My suggestion is to put a backpack breaching tool kit in every patrol car in the US and implement a training program for their use in tandem with the agency's active shooter response training program.
As a member of our tactical unit, I assisted in training our department annually in active shooter response. We also incorporated the fire department in our training. This was great training for our agencies but I believe it is time to add breaching tool training as well.
I am not endorsing any particular brand or model of breaching tool. There are many companies that sell these items separately or several tools in a kit with a backpack or carrying bag. There are many different kinds of breaching tools or just tools that can be used to breach doors: Crowbars, halligan tools, break and rake tools, door slams, rams, fire hooks, sledgehammers and countless other tools. Some are expensive, some not so expensive.
Agencies should look at these tools, do some testing and evaluation, and decide what best fits the needs of their patrol officers. So far in 2022, there have been 27 school shootings in the US. Add all the other structures that criminal shooters target such as churches, malls, workplaces, restaurants, concerts, events and anywhere else people gather, most officers will respond to these incidents several times during their career. They should have breaching equipment immediately available to overcome locked or fortified doors and windows.
I periodically still talk to some of the officers who responded with me that night so many years ago to the violent domestic call. We still talk about the frustration we carry around not being able to save the mother who was murdered as we tried in vain to get inside to rescue her. I still wonder if having a breaching tool could have made a difference.
About the author
Philip Paz spent 24 years with the USAF in the Security Police Field retiring as an SMSgt and 29 years with the Oklahoma City Police Department working the streets in patrol for 25 of those years as a training officer and member of the tactical team as a sniper/operator/team leader.