5 More Considerations When Developing an Officer Firearms Program

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This second part of our series on campus officer gun programs gives you the low down on officers carrying their weapons when they are off duty, patrol rifles, inspections and more.

Note: Author Lt. John Weinstein will be presenting on this topic at the Campus Safety National Forum July 23-24 in Washington, D.C. Register today!

In 5 Considerations When Developing an Officer Firearms Program, we covered gun and holster selection, training and qualification. But those are just a few of the things to be considered when developing your campus officer gun program, policies and procedures.

Campuses must also determine if their officers should carry backup weapons, if their weapons should be in their possession when they are not on the clock and more. Be certain you cover the following five additional issues when developing your programs.

1. Off-duty carry

Off-duty carry is more complicated and poses a potential serious officer safety threat. Many sworn officers feel obligated to carry off-duty because they feel they are sworn 24/7. However, their equipment and lack of focused training can be a real problem. Many officers who carry off duty buy a low profile holster that lacks the retention characteristics of a duty holster. Retention devices add bulk to a holster and defeat the need for it to be unobtrusive. At the same time, many officers wear 5-11 or similar tactical trousers and other clothing that calls attention to them being a cop. A cop, recognized by such, and wearing a holster that does not effectively protect a weapon from an unauthorized grab or from coming loose in a fight or during some other strenuous activity, is setting himself up for failure. Second, just as drawing from a duty holster requires thousands of reps to develop muscle memory, so does drawing from a concealed holster, whether it’s on an ankle, inside a waistband, a fanny pack (God forbid!) or some other unobtrusive but accessible place. If an officer needs to draw a weapon in a hurry to protect life and limb but lacks the skill to access a weapon quickly, disaster could ensue. Also, a weapon carried inside a waistband or on an ankle may result in an officer lasering himself. An officer trained to bring a weapon to his centerline may laser his femoral artery when drawing from an ankle holster, for instance. In other words, it is imperative that an officer carrying an off-duty concealed weapon train as rigorously to draw it safely and quickly as he or she does with a duty weapon. Finally, lots of off-duty officers intervening in a situation requiring drawn weapons have been shot by responding uniformed officers who did not realize they were good guys. Teaching officers how to respond when in plain clothes to a situation in which uniformed officers, with adrenalin flowing, are arriving could save their lives. This training also needs to be included in a department’s firearms training program.

2. Back-up weapons

Two of the issues mentioned in the preceding paragraph are germane when considering back-up weapons: holster retention and practicing safe and effective weapon deployment. Having an extra weapon is a nice safeguard in the event one’s service weapon catastrophically fails or an officer is in a fight and cannot access his or her service weapon. However, the weapons being carried today are highly reliable and durable, and the fact that most officers are carrying one or two spare magazines, each carrying 10-20 rounds, constitutes lots of firepower and mitigates the need for a second weapon. In a fight, the advantage of a second weapon can quickly become a liability. All of a sudden, instead of having to protect one weapon from an unauthorized grab, now the officer has to protect two.

Some departments allow officers to carry back-up weapons. Mine doesn’t.

3. Inspection program

Your and your officers’ lives depend on reliable weapons. Do your research and invest in weapons that are simple to maintain but with a good reputation for reliable service. Send several officers to armorer school and learn how to maintain your weapons. Conduct regular 100% zero-based weapon inspections. Replacing a few relatively inexpensive parts can result in years of continuous good service. There are several checks an officer can and should do after cleaning a weapon. Get your armorers to identify them and incorporate them into your range days. This way, every officer, when leaving, knows his or her weapon is in good shape; and if a problem is encountered, such as a dirty firing pin channel or a cracked pin, the problem can be addressed at the range. This beats having an officer walking around with a weapon that could fail in a critical situation. Remember that firearms are machines, and even quality machines can fail. I observed an officer recruit, going through the firearms portion of the academy, have a brand new firearm fail and fire in a fully automatic mode! That was more than just another exciting day at the range!

4. Shotgun

Virginia no longer requires officers to qualify with the shotgun. In my view, this is a shame, because no act gets someone’s attention like racking a shell into a chamber. The “click-click” of a shell being chambered makes a powerful statement and is an effective deterrent.

However, a shotgun has several downsides. In addition to intimidating bad guys, it intimidates some officers who hate to use it. They fail to train with it, and this constitutes a danger for them, for the officers they may have to back, for citizens in the area and for their department (from a liability point of view). Second, if it carries buck shot instead of slugs, there is a potential for serious collateral damage downrange as the pattern begins to spread out. Third, I have seen many shotguns without slings. A long gun without a sling presents a serious potential problem for an officer who has to go hands on. Where does one leave a shotgun when in a fight? You can’t just put it on the ground; but holding onto it handicaps a responding officer, effectively taking him or her out of the fight.

As a result of these considerations, some jurisdictions have abandoned shotguns altogether and some academies no longer train recruits in their use. Other agencies have dedicated them exclusively to less lethal ammunitions such as bean bags and pepper balls for crowd control and other non-lethal applications. Other agencies use them both in lethal and non-lethal applications, but this is dangerous since either can fire a lethal round and could be confusing in a moment of extreme duress.

5. Patrol rifle

More departments are adopting the patrol rifle, often as a replacement for the shotgun, because they are easy to shoot accurately at a greater distance than handguns and are generally well-received by officers. Unlike a handgun round or shotgun slug, a .223 (5.56x45mm) round will penetrate a bad guy’s ballistic armor, which we are seeing with increasing frequency, thereby giving an officer a significant advantage over an adversary armed with a handgun or shotgun.

Like the aforementioned, there are several points to consider. First, going to a patrol rifle will mean your officers have to qualify on an additional weapon. Shooting the patrol rifle is best done on a range extending beyond the typical 25-yard handgun qualification range. A good distance is 100 yards, but ranges with this distance may not be available to many departments. Shooting on a 25- or even 50-yard range means an officer might engage a real adversary at a longer distance, introducing a potential liability of shooting beyond one’s experience.

Second, a range of ammunition is available for the patrol rifle. Some departments have adopted 40-grain frangible bullets to prevent a bullet passing through (i.e., over-penetrating) a target. The disadvantage of this round is it may not achieve adequate penetration (e.g., a subject turns sideways, forcing the bullet to traverse a bicep and shoulder before encountering vital organs) to neutralize a target. Most departments use 55-grain ball (i.e., full metal jacket) ammunition for training, but use bonded 62-grain rounds for duty loads because the heavier bullet is more stable in flight. There are 77-grain bullets, often used in competitive shooting, but these are not needed for duty use.

Third, is weapon assignment: should weapons be assigned to individual officers or used as “pool weapons” where they are placed in cruisers and made available for use by any qualified officer? Most departments go with the former. With pool weapons, no single officer is in charge of cleaning and caring for the weapon. Since officers come in all shapes and sizes, a single setting for optics, the length of the adjustable stock and sling cannot be easily optimized for all potential users, so an officer pulling a weapon out of a rack in a cruiser is not certain exactly how the weapon’s sights are set up. In a crisis, requiring immediate and decisive action, this uncertainty puts officers’ lives at risk and leaves the department open to significant liability.

Fourth, a department may consider whether officers can carry their personally owned patrol rifles or only ones issued by the department. Some agencies allow officers to carry their personal weapons. In this case, the department approves slings, optics and other accessories carried on an officer’s rifle. Most patrol rifles are “mil-spec,” which means key operating parts, such as the bolt carrier group, are interchangeable between guns of different manufacturers, the magazines are interchangeable and the weapons function the same. Essentially, it is like having Fords, Chevys and Dodges in the patrol fleet; the different brands are all driven the same. With proper oversight and standardization, the use of personal weapons can be a way of arming officers with significant firepower at a minimum price.

These Points Are Only the Beginning

This article has superficially identified some of the major issues a department needs to consider in deciding whether to arm itself and then implementing that decision. There are many more issues, and they all need to be considered in greater detail than the space here allows.

In addressing this issue, departmental leaders should solicit help from local police agencies; state certifying bodies, such as Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services; state police; and professional associations such as the National Rifle Association and the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (http://ialefi.com/). All can provide great guidance and assistance in implementing this crucial capability.