5 Considerations When Developing an Officer Firearms Program
Thinking of arming your officers? Gun and holster selection, training and qualification are just a few of the things to keep in mind.
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook and other active shooter incidents, there has been much discussion about arming teachers and school administrators. At the college level, some security departments have transitioned from unarmed to armed, while others have transitioned to a sworn police department. Arming a security or police department has been viewed as preferable to arming teachers and non-security administrators who are unlikely to have time for the rigorous legal, physical and skill training necessary to assume the enormous responsibility of being armed. Further, an armed uniformed force of officers can have a deterrent effect on violent crime and instill a heightened sense of professionalism and esprit d’corps within that force.
A campus security agency embarking on an armed program has to worry about a lot more than officers being able to meet state-mandated minimum qualification scores. There are significant
liabilities and physical dangers inherent in arming officers. We’ve identified 10 factors that merit careful deliberation.
1. Which gun will police officers use?
The debate is endless about the most suitable sidearm for law enforcement. Glock, Sig Sauer, Colt, Springfield Armory, Smith and Wesson, Ruger and many other manufacturers supply police departments throughout the country. These and other manufacturers produce a quality product. In general, departments consider factors such as weight and size, reliability, initial and ongoing maintenance costs, simplicity of design, magazine capacity, and whether the trigger is single action (requires the hammer or striker to be cocked before the first round is fired) or double action (the trigger both cocks and releases the hammer or striker).
John Browning’s 1911, made by many manufacturers, is perhaps the most iconic handgun in America, and many departments carry it. However, it is carried with the hammer “cocked and locked.” This mode of carry may appear intimidating to college administrators, and deploying a cocked and locked weapon and deactivating the safety in an emergency takes a great deal of practice to develop the muscle memory for safe and effective use.
Glock handguns are found in more departments than any other manufacturer’s because they are relatively inexpensive, simple to operate and maintain, rugged, reliable and relatively insensitive to the type of ammunition being used. Glocks also come in a variety of calibers and sizes, offering flexible options to officers with smaller hands or officers who need to carry a weapon concealed.
Also consider the make (and caliber) of sidearm being used by local jurisdictions. Adopting the same weapon may allow a department to obtain weapons and ammunition in conjunction with the local department and achieve economies of scale. It also facilitates joint operations. For instance, an officer from one agency armed with the same make and model of handgun could provide a magazine to an officer of another agency armed with the same handgun. However, a word of caution: Many agencies purchase .40 caliber Glock models 22 and 23, the latter being slightly smaller than the former. In an emergency, an officer armed with the 15-round magazine of the Glock 22 could offer a spare magazine to an officer armed with a Glock 23, but an officer armed with a Glock 22 could not use the 13-round magazine from the Glock 23 in his pistol. Although many agencies order the 23 for officers who need to conceal their weapon or who prefer a slightly smaller and lighter weapon, the grip circumference of both weapons is the same. As a result, ordering one or the other may be an appropriate officer safety consideration.
2. Which caliber, style and brand?
As with the make and model of handguns, the preferred caliber of ammunition is a subject of endless debate among firearms instructors. For some, the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) is considered best because it has potent knock-down power. Additionally, its relatively slow speed (less than 800 feet per second when fired from a handgun) holds little risk of over-penetrating a target. On the negative side, however, it has significant recoil, making it difficult for smaller and weaker shooters to control; its larger size means fewer rounds can be carried in a magazine relative to smaller caliber rounds; and it’s more expensive.
The 9mm cartridge is less expensive, lends itself to greater magazine capacity and has less recoil, making it easier to control. Many shooters score higher on qualification attempts when shooting this more “user friendly” round. However, and this is a big however, there are documented cases in which the lighter 9mm round has exhibited insufficient stopping power. (The 9 mm round is generally available with three bullet weights, in order of weight from least to most: 115-grain, 124-grain, and 147-grain.) Advocates of the round argue this criticism is specious, since good shot placement makes the stopping power argument moot.
Over the last 20 years, many agencies have adopted the .40 caliber round as a compromise between the .45 and the 9mm for the considerations listed above. Some agencies are returning to the heavier (147-grain) 9mm round as a slightly cheaper and more controllable round with ballistic penetration characteristics that approach that of the .40 caliber.
Once an agency has settled on the caliber, it needs to select a brand. Major manufacturers, such as Remington, Federal and Winchester produce excellent duty (hollow point) and training (full metal jacket) ammunition. (Full metal jacket, or FMJ, ammunition has a lead core enclosed in a copper sleeve, except for the bullet’s base. Total metal jacket, or TMJ, is the same as FMJ except it also encloses the bullet’s base in copper. TMJ rounds tend to emit less lead and some ranges require them. However, TMJ cartridges are slightly more expensive than FMJs.) Ammunition can also be purchased with aluminum (e.g., CCI Blazer) and steel (e.g., Wolf) casings. Such casings are cheaper, and some agencies use them for training, although critics of cheaper ammunition argue they are dirtier and more corrosive, their casings cannot be resold to recover ammunition costs, and/or may damage internal firearm mechanisms in the case of steel casings. Readers interested in delving more deeply into the debate about ammunition can find ample discussion online.
3. Which holster?
Modern holsters are evaluated with respect to retention levels. In other words, how difficult would it be for someone to grab an officer’s weapon from his or her holster, either in a surprise grab or during a fight. Early holsters had no inherent retention beyond friction holding the weapon in the holster. These holsters allowed a quick draw but afforded little protection against unauthorized gun grabs. Through the mid-1900s, holsters had a strip over the hammer or a flap that snapped over the otherwise exposed gun. These holsters have been replaced by double-and triple-retention holsters on duty belts. In order to draw the weapon, an officer (or bad guy attempting to take the officer’s weapon) needs to take several actions, such as depressing and rotating a hood that covers the weapon, depressing a button to deactivate a locking device, moving a lever to release the weapon, or some similar mechanism or combination of mechanisms. While retention holsters maintain the security of an officer’s weapon,
they require regular if not frequent practice on the part of an officer to develop the muscle memory to operate them quickly in a crisis. There are documented cases where officers lost their lives because they could not deploy their weapons during a crisis.
There are other issues of debate surrounding holsters. Regarding the holster’s material, leather looks good but it is expensive and shows its age. Synthetic materials are rugged but some lack the durability of leather. Where the holster is worn also makes a difference. For years, officers have worn holsters on their duty belt, but the weight of their loaded weapon, two or three magazines, and other duty gear can weigh 15 to 20 pounds. Some officers have suffered back problems and ask to wear outer vest carriers and/or thigh rigs. While such may ease back problems, they present a more “SWAT-ish” appearance and may appear too militaristic for a college campus.
4. Training for guns
Training is expensive, but if it’s not conducted, the costs can be much more. Courts have found that officers going once or twice annually to meet state minimum qualifications requirements do not constitute training and that an agency could be held negligent in a civil lawsuit for failure to train. Firearms skills are extremely perishable, and officers should train on their issued weapons as often as possible. This training should include handguns and any departmental long guns. A department should allocate about 200 rounds of handgun ammunition per officer per training session, along with 10-20 shotgun rounds and about 50 patrol rifle rounds. The cost of the ammo, per officer, runs about $80-$100. Now calculate the costs to cover a campus while the officer is training, travel time, gas, instructors’ time, etc., and the expenses become staggering for a department. In addition to these periodic costs are those of ordering departmental ammunition stocks and storing them.
Such costs are significant, but the loss of a multimillion dollar civil suit for failure to train puts them in perspective. It is not fair to the public we serve, our institutions or our officers to put them in potential life and death situations without officers having the wherewithal to employ authorized lethal force in a manner that’s compliant with state and federal laws and professional guidelines. Just because officers can qualify by achieving in a benign training environment some state-mandated level of proficiency, does not automatically mean they have the ability to deploy deadly force in an effective and responsible way. (In Virginia, the minimum qualification score required by the Department of Criminal Justice Services is 70%.)
There are several things an agency can do to mitigate the costs of training. Get with a local police academy or department that has a firearms simulator and train with it. If a local agency has one, see if your officers can train with theirs. As an enticement, perhaps you can make school buildings available to local agencies for active shooter training, K-9 training, etc. Your officers will benefit greatly, and the joint training opens up other opportunities to exploit cost-effective synergies with your local jurisdictions. Another cost-saving option is the purchase of laser targeting systems, conversion kits that allow less-expensive .22 LR ammunition to be used with officers’ issued weapons for training. Finally, an agency can collect its spent brass and sell it to a metal reclamation company.
Once more point about training, and this cannot be over-emphasized: pay attention to safety. One might think this advice goes without saying, but say it anyway. The range can be an intoxicating place, especially for officers who like to shoot and are spending time with their buddies. Just like on the street, an officer can become complacent at the range, never expecting anything to go wrong.
The saying, “A bad day at the range is better than a good day in the office,” isn’t necessarily so. Any senior firearms instructor will tell you that over the years, he or she has seen several negligent discharges, some committed by officers who were highly professional and senior and well versed in firearms safety rules.
Pay attention to safety, and do not rely on merely reading the rules while officers nod their heads indicating they understand. Stringent procedures must also be in place and rigorously applied at all times.
5. Qualification for guns
When an officer qualifies with a firearm, the department affirms he or she has met some state-mandated minimum level of proficiency. However, as noted above, qualification will not shield an officer or department from a civil suit.
A department can require its officers to qualify at a higher level of proficiency required by the state, and some departments do. In Virginia, there are certain timed requirements, such as being able to draw and fire two rounds in three seconds. Some departments have access to ranges with turning targets, which introduce a bit of stress into the training environment. Other departments, without access to turning targets, use a shot timer and penalize officers who fail to fire their shots within the allotted time. Shot timers are more forgiving than turning targets.
One factor a department may want to consider is how it records qualification scores. An officer who qualifies at the 90% proficiency level is generally considered a good shot. In a civil suit, a plaintiff’s attorney will have him confirm that 10% of the time, he has no idea where his shot is going. Some departments have concluded it’s better to make qualification a simple pass-fail matter. Then, if required to testify in a civil suit, the department can claim the officer met all state standards. It could not be held responsible why it failed to raise an officer’s proficiency from 70% to 80%, or 80% to 90%, or 90% to 100%. Also, due to the threat of civil litigation, many departments do not allow officers to retain targets after high-scoring rounds. A plaintiff’s attorney could direct attention to rounds that missed the target or off it completely, instead of those in the target. Even with rounds in the target, a dispersion of shots in the target might seem like the officer has little control over where his or her shots are going. Remember, many juries are used to seeing cops on television shooting weapons out of a bad guy’s hand from some spectacular distance.
Part two of this article will appear in the January/February 2015 issue of Campus Safety magazine and on CampusSafetyMagazine.com.
Lt. John Weinstein, a District Commander with Northern Virginia Community College’s Police Department, is certified by Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services as a firearms instructor, and he is his department’s lead firearms instructor. He also conducts firearms training at two local police academies. Weinstein has numerous firearms training materials that are available upon request.