By Melanie Bevan, EdD, Police Major, Saint Petersburg, Florida, Police Department; Charles “Chuck” Harmon, Chief of Police, Saint Petersburg, Florida, Police Department; and Robert Lord, Officer, Research and Planning, Saint Petersburg, Florida, Police Department
ocated on the central west coast of Florida, Saint Petersburg is Florida’s fourth largest city with approximately 250,000 residents. For nearly 30 years, police officers at the Saint Petersburg Police Department had returned home safely following their shifts. There had, however, been some close calls. Two instances in particular underscored the department’s appreciation for individuals in the medical community. In 2008, an undercover detective was shot at close range while arresting a robbery suspect. Quick, on-scene first aid followed by six hours of surgery saved his life.1 In 2009, a nearly identical set of circumstances almost claimed the life of another undercover detective after he was shot five times at close range. Once again, this second detective’s life was saved by immediate life-saving medical care.2
On January 24, 2011, at about 7:30 a.m., Saint Petersburg K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz climbed into a dark residential attic in an attempt to take a wanted fugitive into custody. He found the individual hiding in a corner. Yaslowitz sighted his gun and flashlight on the suspect and was joined by a U.S. Marshal who did the same with his electronic control device. Initially, the suspect caused no alarm, verbally indicating his compliance and responding to verbal commands to crawl toward the officers. Unbeknownst to the officers was the gun the suspect had concealed beneath him, which he moved along the ground as he inched closer and closer to them. As Yaslowitz prepared to take the suspect into custody, the suspect produced a handgun and, after a brief struggle, shot Yaslowitz in the head at point-blank range. He then turned and fired two shots at the U.S. Marshal, causing him to fall out of the attic to the floor below.
As the officer down calls made by detectives on the scene rang out over the radio, the suspect, still in the attic and now with the benefit of Yaslowitz’s gun and ammunition, continued his assault on the responding officers below. The officers delivered a ballistic shield to the scene approximately 10 minutes after the initial gunfire. In a heroic effort to rescue their mortally wounded comrade still lying in the attic above and the U.S. Marshal now trapped in the bathroom, a rescue team, under the direction of Sergeant Thomas Baitinger, entered the house with the single ballistic shield. Even with precise positioning of the shield by Baitinger, shots fired from the suspect through the ceiling above the sergeant’s head struck him. Ultimately, both Baitinger and Yaslowitz died of their injuries, and the U.S. Marshall survived. The suspect died from gunshot wounds received during the incident.
In a separate incident, the largest manhunt in the history of the department began just before midnight on February 21, 2011, a mere 28 days after the deaths of Yaslowitz and Baitinger. Officer David Crawford had spent virtually his entire 25-year career on the midnight shift, assigned to the downtown area of Saint Petersburg. He had the reputation of a gruff, seasoned cop who could effectively manage the sort of clientele that emerges when everyone else has gone to bed. He also had a soft spot for victims of domestic abuse and gave them the sort of care and attention one would give one’s own mother in similar circumstances. Soon after his shift began, Crawford was dispatched to a call involving a suspicious person possibly breaking into cars. Upon spotting a subject in the area, Crawford exited his cruiser and began his approach. The 16-year-old suspect produced a handgun and fired multiple fatal wounds into Crawford. Hundreds of officers from across the region assisted in the intensive search for the suspect—who was eventually identified and found just outside his apartment. He is currently on trial.
When generally considering the changes in law enforcement equipment and training over the last 20 years, the assumption may be that police officers are safer today than ever before. Unfortunately, officer mortality statistics, particularly in the state of Florida, refute this assumption. Nationwide, officer line-of-duty deaths were up 13 percent in 2011 from 2010,3 and, with 14 officers killed in 2011, Florida ranks as the deadliest state for law enforcement in the nation.4 These statistics carry the sobering reality that police officers are being killed more frequently and more violently that ever before, and Saint Petersburg, Florida, is now part of this tragic trend. As arbiters for society, entering into dangerous and life-threatening situations is an assumed job task and an inherent risk of law enforcement personnel. Although “deference to legal authorities is the norm, disobedience occurs with sufficient frequency,” and “that skill in handling the rebellious, the disgruntled, and the hard to manage—or those potentially so—has become the police officers’ performance litmus test.”5 Years of policing research have revealed that persuasion, consensus building, and various other methods of influencing are not always successful intervention tactics. Sometimes, it simply comes down to who is more prepared through department practices and available equipment, and a host of other factors, to chart the outcome of a violent encounter.
Regional Safety Review
No contemporary, progressive police agency can stand idle following the deaths of three of their own in such a shockingly short time span without considering training, policies, and equipment that might prevent similar occurrences. At the same time, self-critique can be extremely difficult, particularly when the media, looking to cast blame, is camping in the backyard. Ultimately, however, it becomes the duty of the chief to make the call to examine policies; this is the right thing to do not only for the agency but also for the betterment of policing, no matter the consequences. And so police leaders and trainers from local, state, and federal agencies, some of whom also had recently lost officers to gunfire, attended a consortium hosted by Saint Petersburg. The purpose was to review officer safety practices and equipment that might provide the necessary advantages to keep officers safer in the field. An in-depth overview of the circumstances that led to the deaths of Yaslowitz, Baitinger, and Crawford was provided along with those of two officers from an adjoining city (Tampa) who had been killed a short time earlier.
From this safety review emerged several key areas that attendees felt were critical elements that needed to be acquired or adopted not necessarily solely in the Saint Petersburg region but on a national level. Further, nearly every sworn member of the 550-person Saint Petersburg agency was queried during this formal review. The goal was to identify which of the plethora of recommendations were most important to see through to fruition. The remainder of this article details some of the key findings from this in-depth review, along with the supporting history and scholarly research that supports these recommendations. Ultimately, all of the recommendations concerned acquiring key pieces of equipment and, perhaps most importantly, prioritizing the delivery of needed equipment to an active scene at the expense of industry norms.
Time-to-Scene Police Culture: What Has Already Changed
At one time, semiautomatic or fully automatic rifles were only carried by special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams, whose members always took a considerable amount of time—45 minutes or more—to arrive at a scene. The shift in police culture toward the need for semiautomatic rifles to be at a scene faster than a SWAT team can arrive can be attributed in large part on the heavily publicized Los Angeles, California, Police Department (LAPD) North Hollywood bank robbery shootout in 1997.6 In that now famous incident, two bank robbery suspects handily outgunned patrol officers with readily available semiautomatic rifles that were modified to fully automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines. During the shootout, police handgun rounds visibly bounced off the suspects’ head-to-toe body armor during the live TV broadcasted shootout. 7 After helping to secure 600 M-16 rifles for the LAPD following the North Hollywood shootout, then-California Governor Pete Wilson likely summed up the sentiment of many politicians and police chiefs across the country: “Never, ever again do I want to see officers of the Los Angeles Police Department outgunned.”8
The deployment of rifles with patrol officers that can penetrate soft body armor, decreasing time-to-scene arrival, has now become a common part of police culture. This shift in police culture toward equipment deployment is emphasized as an example of what Saint Petersburg’s findings revealed should be applied to several other existing law enforcement tools.
Saint Petersburg has allowed for officers to carry self-purchased AR-15s since 2005.9 To further increase the number of officers who participate in the self-purchase and carry program, Saint Petersburg recently created a program whereby the city lent officers the money for the full purchase price of an AR-15 at the beginning of the fiscal year and allowed officers to pay the city back through biweekly payroll deductions.10 The program was so successful it roughly doubled the number of officers who now carry an AR-15 on the street.
Time-to-Scene Improvement No. 1: Thermal Imaging Cameras
Tactical instructors explain that thermal imaging cameras, particularly when pole mounted, help limit officers’ exposure while searching dark, awkward places such as attics or crawl spaces.11 Though the documented police use of basic mirrors and periscope-type gadgets started in the 1970s,12 their use probably began decades earlier by tactically minded cops trying to stay safe as they peered around corners and into attics. During the early 1970s, when only the most technologically advanced police agencies were using expensive night-vision cameras, scientists began to mull the thought of thermal camera use by police.13 By 1981, there were documented uses of thermal cameras by law enforcement agencies searching for missing persons.14 Though pole-mounted thermal cameras are fairly common equipment for SWAT teams today, reports of their use by SWAT teams began to enter into mainstream media by the early 1990s.15 By the 2000s, references to SWAT teams’ use of tactical thermal cameras became more common, with the cameras themselves markedly improving with lower costs and less bulk.16
The nature of the business demands that officers clear buildings and search for suspects routinely. Unfortunately, clearing attic spaces places police officers at a tactical disadvantage and makes them vulnerable to attack in a situation sometimes called the “ultimate fatal funnel.”17 Authors of tactical articles indicate that technology should be used by police when searching difficult-to-access spaces such as attics, basements, or crawl spaces to minimize a hiding suspect’s advantage as much as possible.18 These types of spaces are common and readily available for suspects to hide in, yet the appropriate tools needed to search them are most often relegated to specialized SWAT teams.
The lessons learned in Saint Petersburg? Officers should no longer need to rely on small, handheld mirrors or other makeshift safety equipment or consider that it might just be easier to do without any equipment rather than wait for an hour or longer for something better to be delivered. This dated deployment practice that is common throughout the law enforcement industry is simply not the best deployment practice. Tactical thermal cameras are a technological resource to safely inspect dark, difficult-to-reach spaces such as attics. The application of these devices for building searches is apparent; just ask members of fire departments who have been using them for years. Most importantly, however, is that these tactical thermal cameras need to be easily and readily available to patrol officers who use them the most and will ultimately benefit the greatest from their use. In response, the agency is now in the process of ordering several tactical thermal camera units that will be continuously deployed on the street and available quickly for any type of situation where they might prove useful. The method of deployment, which involves use of the cameras by the K-9 unit during tracking, as well as the associated thermal camera equipment, has been specifically modified to meet the department’s needs. It appears as these two factors together are exclusive to Saint Petersburg, with no research indicating such deployment by other agencies.
Time-to-Scene Improvement No. 2: Ballistic Shields
Unfortunately, whole-body ballistic protection for police officers is just too heavy and impractical.19 Ballistic shields, however, provide a large area of ballistic protection on demand for police, and their tactical advantages are well documented–particularly when officers anticipate being shot at with a handgun.20 Officers holding ballistic shields are protected not only from suspects’ gunfire; in some cases, the shields have allowed police to continue moving forward toward a suspect under much safer circumstances than they would have been afforded otherwise.21 Perhaps the most important thing ballistic shields offer is the opportunity for limited cover when attempting to reach a down officer.22 In short, when being fired upon by suspects, ballistic shields give officers protection and response options they do not have without them.
The U.S. Department of Justice first took notice of ballistic shields in police work when it published its first performance standards for them in 1973.23 Since that time, ballistic shields have slowly worked their way into police culture, beginning with SWAT teams. In recent years, as the value of ballistic shield deployment has become better recognized, some law enforcement trainers have argued agencies should go as far as equipping every patrol car with a ballistic shield.24 However, with retail prices ranging from $900–$2,900 for most standard 36-inch by 24-inch Level III-A shields,25 outfitting every patrol car with one has been cost prohibitive for most agencies. A compromise trend for ballistic shields appears to be emerging as some better equipped agencies move toward a one-shield-per-sergeant or a one-shieldper-squad minimum standard.26
The lesson learned in Saint Petersburg? Simply making ballistic shields available to officers is no longer good enough. During a debriefing session following the January 24 incident, on-scene officers said that it took too long for enough ballistic shields to arrive on scene. A small number of ballistic shields had been available to officers for years at the police station in the equipment room. The agency had a policy that allowed for sergeants to check out the shields and carry them in their cruisers. The problem, however, was that the agency had moved to electronic read-offs—online department message boards that communicate important information—with many sergeants starting their shifts without stopping by the police station. There were only a handful of shields, which was more than enough for any one incident but not enough to justify sergeants retaining one beyond their own shifts. The requirement of checking out a ballistic shield daily and checking it back in at the end of a shift worked well enough on paper, but as one might imagine, it led to the shields sitting at the police station much more often than being available on the street.
Reducing the time-to-scene wait is critical when a ballistic shield is really needed. This problem can be minimized only by putting more shields on the street, thus increasing the odds that a shield will already be on scene or in a cruiser close by when a routine situation becomes a high-risk situation. It also may increase the use of this valued piece of safety equipment by officers, even when the situation may not immediately call for it, merely because it is already there and a viable option. The department has now ordered enough shields to assign one to every patrol squad, meeting what appears to be a trending new deployment standard for ballistic shields. Noteworthy is that department members participated in the design for the department’s customized shields that, at 14.5 pounds, are one of the lightest available on today’s market for their size.
Time-to-Scene Improvement No. 3: Armored Rescue Vehicle
Police agencies across the country have identified armored rescue vehicles as a way to protect officers from high-caliber gunfire. Early armored vehicles used by police were typically surplus military vehicles, bringing with them unique logistic problems in accessing parts and specially trained mechanics.27 Ironically, even though armored rescue vehicles do not come with a cannon or other offensive weapon, the inability for a suspect to kill the police inside an armored rescue vehicle can leave criminal suspects feeling intimidated.28 The New York City Police Department’s Emergency Service Unit was an early adapter of armored rescue vehicles29 as were Los Angeles’s SWAT teams.30
The days of specially trained drivers needed to operate surplus military vehicles have given way to newer models built on easy-to-drive, common truck platforms.31 These armored rescue vehicles are not only easier to drive, but look less like military tanks than earlier models. The most popular models have base prices between $200,000 and $225,000, and officers who drive them report a driving experience similar to very large SUVs.32 These limited use vehicles last much longer than daily use police cruisers, with a life expectancy of 10–15 years.33 Federal homeland security grants and forfeiture seizure funds are the most common way that agencies pay for armored rescue vehicles.34
During the aforementioned North Hollywood bank robbery shoot-out, patrol officers on the scene commandeered a nearby commercial armored delivery truck to rescue officers and civilians.35 Following the gun battle that lasted 30 minutes,36 at least one of the LAPD’s own armored vehicles equipped with a battering ram arrived on the scene and was reported to have knocked down the wall of a house where a suspect was thought to have been hiding.37 The story behind the story is important here: If the LAPD had at least one armored vehicle, why did patrol officers on the scene have to commandeer a commercial armored delivery truck to rescue their own officers and civilians? Without behind-the-scenes details, deductive reasoning reveals the simple answer: The time it took to get approval for the use of a department armored vehicle, the time it took to get an authorized driver to the armored vehicle, and the time it took to drive it to the scene exceeded the time frame during which patrol officers on the scene needed the armored vehicle.
The lesson learned in Saint Petersburg is quite clear. Simply relying on neighboring agencies for use of their armored rescue vehicles is no longer good enough for any progressive police agency. To bring the time-to-scene wait time for an armored rescue vehicle to an absolute minimum, every officer should be trained in the vehicle’s use and the keys should be readily available at a centralized location. During the January 24 incident in Saint Petersburg, a quick-thinking patrol officer overcame the department’s lack of an armored vehicle and commandeered an oversized dump truck from a nearby construction site, using it to provide cover for rescue teams reentering the residence where officers were trapped, all while waiting for neighboring agencies to arrive with purpose-built armored rescue vehicles. Such spur-of-the-moment acts of ingenuity cannot be written into policy and cannot be relied upon at every high-risk scene.
Currently on order for the department is a new armored rescue vehicle that is built on a large pickup truck platform, is easy to drive, and requires minimal training to operate. Going one step further, the department hopes to push the industry toward a new armored rescue vehicle deployment trend. Every patrol-based officer will be trained in the operation of the armored rescue vehicle, approval for its deployment will be kept at a street supervisory level, and a number of keys for the vehicle will be available to facilitate the fastest possible response of the vehicle when it is needed.
The contemporary law enforcement officer is expected to accomplish duties in a social climate that demands the application of complex sociological and technological tools. While competencies in handling violent conflict have been improved and refined over time, these competencies cannot replace advances in practices and equipment that have been developed to help police officers more effectively and safely do their jobs. Recognizing that managed evolution is critical in keeping an organization adaptive,38 law enforcement leaders desiring continued development within their agencies must focus on both definitive and emerging research to challenge the outdated presuppositions associated with equipment deployment strategies on which a majority of current department practices are based.
The Saint Petersburg Police Department suggests changing the deployment approach for some of the most critical safety tools available to law enforcement today: thermal imaging cameras, ballistic shields, and armored rescue vehicles. Saint Petersburg’s officers learned that the faster these critical safety tools are delivered to patrol officers at a scene, the better off everyone is—police officers and community members alike. Saint Petersburg also recognizes that today’s most common, industry-standard deployment practices are no longer good enough and law enforcement leaders have an obligation to reduce the time-to-scene wait for these critical tools to an absolute minimum.
In the end, this is an article about officer safety, about how to learn from tragedies, about how to self-critique, and about how to do better next time. Saint Petersburg’s officers chose to carefully analyze the situations surrounding the tragic deaths of three officers to suggest some industryrelated improvements in the way business is done—at least in Saint Petersburg—as any progressive agency would, or should. Notwithstanding the tight budgetary times that most police departments are currently facing, the department was able to acquire funding for all of these purchases and other safety initiative–related items not mentioned in this article through access to departmental forfeiture and seizure monies. These monies are regulated by Florida state statutes, and all the equipment purchases fell within the expenditure guidelines. Ultimately though, the Saint Petersburg Police Department’s paradigm shift cannot stand alone in revealing best practices for law enforcement absent independent reviews and evaluations of current equipment and policy protocols by every police agency nationwide. By taking a precipitous evaluative position, police leadership everywhere may underscore their commitment to improving officer safety. ■
1Curtis Krueger, “Undercover Cop Describes Shootout,” Saint Petersburg Times, August 8, 2009.
2Luis Perez, Craig Pittman, and Stephanie Garry, “Undercover Officer Shot at Gas Station,” Saint Petersburg Times, January 27, 2009.
3National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, “Law Enforcement Officer Deaths: 2011 Preliminary,” Research Bulletin, www.nleomf.org/assets/pdfs/reports/2011-EOY-Report.pdf (accessed March 1, 2012).
4Danny Valentine, “Deadly Year Aims at Cops,” Tampa Bay Times, December 29, 2011, 1A.
5Stephen D. Mastrofski, Jeffrey B. Snipes, and Anne E. Supina, “Compliance on Demand: The Public’s Response to Specific Police Requests,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 33, no. 3 (1996): 269–305.
6B. Drummond Ayres Jr., “Police Kill 2 Bank Robbery Suspects in a Wild Gun Battle,” New York Times, March 1, 1997.
7Daniel B. Wood, “LAPD Initially Outgunned in Thwarted Bank Robbery Shown on Live TV,” Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 1997.
8Steve Marshall, “L.A. Cops Get 600 M-16s to Help Even Odds on Street,” USA Today, September 17, 1997, 4A.
9Stephen Thompson, “Some Saint Pete Police Have New Weapon,” Tampa Tribune, January 26, 2005.
10Jamal Thalji, “City to Loan Police Money for Semiautomatic Rifles,” Saint Petersburg Times, September 22, 2011, B1.
11Paul D. Schultz, “The Future Is Here: Technology in Police Departments,” The Police Chief 85, no. 6 (June 2008), www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=1527&issue_id=62008 (accessed March 1, 2012).
12Patricia Dane Rogers, “Great IDEAs,” Washington Post, August 31, 1989.
13P.A. Young, Thermal Viewers for Police Use, Office of Research and Engineering Studies, University of Kentucky, 1973.
14“Aircraft Searching for Missing Boy,” The Globe and Mail (Canada), May 7, 1981.
15Margaret Rankin, “Armed Dad Has Tot as Hostage,” Washington Times, December 1, 1991; John Jeter, “Robot Subdues Man after He Allegedly Killed Girlfriend,” Washington Post, September 3, 1993; and Jackie Ripley and Katherine Shaver, “Standoff at Hospital Ends Safely,” Saint Petersburg Times, September 23, 1995.
16G.D. Jones et al., “A Novel Approach for Surveillance Using Visual and Thermal Images,” IEE Colloquium Digest, no. 50 (2001): 53–71.
17Paul J. Brandley Jr., “Into the Great Abyss: Suggested Protocol for Clearing Attic Scuttles,” PoliceOne.com, February 7, 2006, www.policeone.com/news/123082-Into-the-Great-Abyss-Suggested-protocol-for-clearing-attic-scuttles/ (accessed March 5, 2012).
18Dean Scoville, “Concealed Suspects: Into the Hearts of Darkness,” Police (November 18, 2010), www.policemag.com/Channel/Patrol/Articles/2010/11/Into-the-Hearts-of-Darkness.aspx (accessed March 5, 2012).
19Graham Cooper and Philip Gotts, “Ballistic Protection,” in Ballistic Trauma, ed. Peter F. Mahoney et al. (London: Springer, 2005).
20Jim Weiss and Mary Dresser, “Ballistic Shield Tactics,” Law and Order 50, no. 3 (March 2002): 110–113.
21Anna Knight and Ron McBride, “Survivors’ Club,” The Police Chief 75 (October 2008): 192–193.
22Weiss and Dresser, “Ballistic Shield Tactics.”
23U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Alliance of America, and National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, “Portable Ballistic Shields—Law Enforcement Standards Program” no. STD -STD-0103.00 (1973).
24Lindsey Bertomen, “Bringing Cover with You: When There Are No Trees to Hide Behind, Body Bunkers Provide Tactical Protection,” Law Enforcement Technology 34, no. 6 (June 2007): 73.
25Personal experience of the Saint Petersburg Police Department surveying ballistic shield prices, October 2011.
26Rich Bahret, “Ballistic Shield Training,” Law and Order 53, no. 11 (November 2005), 64–68.
27Richard Danielson, “Tampa Won’t Let Grant for RNC Security Gather Dust,” Saint Petersburg Times (Florida), December 31, 2011, B1.
28Michael Hooper, “California Law Enforcement,” California Department of Justice, www.mhhe.com/ps/cjustice/ap/pdf/ap_ca_supplement.pdf (accessed March 5, 2012).
29Donald G. McNeil Jr., “What’s Inside Those Police Trucks, and Why,” New York Times, March 15, 1992, www.nytimes.com/1992/03/15/weekinreview/the-new-york-region-what-s-inside-those-police-trucks-and-why.html (accessed March 15, 2012).
30Justin Hyde, “Why Do America’s Police Need an Armored Tank?” MSNBC.com, updated March 4, 2011, www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41912754/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/t/why-do-americas-police-need-armored-tank/#.T1TwA4erRCA (accessed March 5, 2012).
32Simon Akan, “Just Try to Get Past These Police Vehicles,” New York Times, July 3, 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/07/04/nyregion/04trucks.html?_r=1 (accessed March 5, 2012).
33Brandon Lowrey, “Carlsbad: Council OKs Purchase of Bearcat Police Vehicle,” North County Times (California), December 8, 2011, www.nctimes.com/news/local/carlsbad/carlsbad-council-oks-purchase-of-bearcat-police-vehicle/article_b449ef6b-152f-5136-85f9-aab8d3f757a4.html (accessed March 5, 2012).
34Hyde, “Why Do America’s Police Need an Armored Tank?”
35National Geographic, Jim Nally, “Situation Critical: North Hollywood Shootout,” Watch Documentary, April 28, 2011, watchdocumentary.com/watch/situation-critical-north-hollywood-shootout-video_4039d8d4b.html (accessed March 5, 2012).
36William Booth, “Bank Robbers Die in Televised L.A. Shootout,” Washington Post, March 1, 1997.
37Paula Story, “Shootout at Bank Carried on Live TV 2 Gunmen Slain in Botched Heist as Bullets Fly in L.A. Streets,” Toronto Star, March 1, 1997, A3.
38Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 106.
Please cite as:
Melanie Bevan, Charles “Chuck” Harmon, and Robert Lord, "Shave Seconds, Increase Safety: Innovative Deployment Practices for Critical Equipment Increases Officer Safety," The Police Chief 79 (May 2012): 42–46.