Shielding more Than SWAT

Handheld Armor Has Come A Long Way Since Roman Times

Story by Robin Taylor

Turn on the 6 o’clock news, and eventually you’ll see a “bulletproof” shield in use. They’re standard equipment for law enforcement entry teams, but thanks to Sandy Hook, civilian-market shields now include everything from bulletproof clipboards and backpacks to full-on police-style shields. School districts in a number of states have started working shields disguised as whiteboards into their “lockdown” strategies. “For the past 15 years, most of what we’ve done is for the military,” says Emily Heinauer with Hardwire LLC ( “We armored the sides of many of the trucks going to Iraq and Afghanistan.

During that time we started making clipboards for law enforcement, and after Sandy Hook, we adapted that to bulletproof whiteboards for educational and commercial settings. Our school and home products have dual functionality as dry erase boards for daily use and ballistic protection.” A Hardwire Level IIIA whiteboard weighs less than 4 pounds, and measures 18 inches by 20 inches. While small by comparison to a fullsize shield, it sells for under $300, and it’s practical. Backpack inserts go for even less.

I did some digging into “the way of the shield” with the help of Bill Blowers of Puyallup, Wash. He serves as a police sergeant on a large regional SWAT team and is the owner of Tap- Rack Tactical ( Police departments use ballistic shields for warrant service and other calls a lot, so Blowers offered to throw me in with a dozen new SWAT officers who needed to get up to speed. Training with Blowers turned out to be one of the highlights of my year.

A BALLISTIC SHIELD ACTS like a bulletproof vest with a handle. It is rated like a vest (IIIA, III, IV), and has similar capabilities. Depending on when the shield was made, it could contain any of several fibers, including Dyneema. The hard format of the shield allows using polyethylene fibers to stabilize and protect the material from humidity, wear and UV light, making it vastly more durable. Typical examples last for decades. (Soft Kevlar armor vests degrade when exposed to moisture and UV light, and must be replaced every few years.) The typical polycarbonate view port stops bullets, helping the overall shield to absorb bullets like a sponge.

Bulk Ammo In-Stock

But aren’t shields really heavy? Not anymore. The total weight of a typical IIIA shield has dropped from around 40 pounds to a little over 20, including on-board floodlights. For the officer in the field, that’s tremendous because the “shield man” does heavy, surprisingly technical work. For the home defender who isn’t built like a SWAT cop, the lighter shields offer mobility, and smaller-bodied people can use them effectively. If you’re willing to go smaller and simpler, shields can be made even lighter. What I’ll call “three-quarter-sized” 20×30-inch shields can weigh just 5.8 pounds. Drop the on-board lights, and a full-size Level IIIA model can be as light as 8.2 pounds, including a view port.

ROMAN LEGIONNAIRES LOVED THE curved-rectangle “scutum” shield for its wide arc of protection, and its ability to interlock with a neighbor’s shield to form a continuous wall. Modern shield makers have taken the hint, and by the end of our class, my group formed into miniature versions of the old Roman “tortoise” – one row of shields facing front; another laid over the top to form a roof – in order to enter stairwells or warehouses with overhead threats.

For the static defender, the curved rectangle offers a protective arc, coupled with a wide viewing area (hold your forehead against the top of the view port). In Simunition fights with my classmates, a moving shield man was terribly vulnerable to shots fired at the legs, but if he knelt and anchored his pistol’s trigger guard against the side of the shield, he offered no target at all. (Given time to prepare, police shield men strap on shin and leg protectors.) Although it lacks a view port, a 20×30 flat shield offers most of that protection at a tiny fraction of the weight and cost.

Shield bearers give up offensive potential to protect the team. It’s their partners’ job to shoot around and over the shield, while the shield bearer deals with blind corners and pointblank threats with his pistol. Done right, that buddy system is downright formidable. Done wrong, that “around and over” business can bite the shield bearer. Blowers’ agency has seen what happens when it goes bad. When one of their own fired his AR-15 with the muzzle even with the shield man’s ear, the shield man suffered permanent hearing loss. To his great credit, the shield man stayed in the fight, but was in tremendous pain. The rifle wore a standard birdcage flash hider – just imagine what damage a side-venting recoil compensator could have done. Suppressed rifles make a lot of sense for “around and over.” Sticking with pistol-caliber carbines and/or a shotgun makes good sense too.

Common shotguns lack any legal bother, put the muzzle ahead of the shield (when used properly), and pack a massive short-range punch. Love ’em or hate ’em, lasers also come into their own around a shield. Using a laser-aimed pistol, a shield man can remain totally protected by the shield and still put accurate fire on target. Instead of sticking his arm out into harm’s way to use the sights, the shield man locks the bottom of his pistol’s trigger guard against the side of the shield, aiming with the laser alone. Having a pistol on each side of the body (what Blowers calls a “Yosemite Sam rig”) gives the shield bearer the ability to rapidly switch sides as he moves. For the barricaded defender, however, complex switching is not in the cards. If our focus is to hold ground, a single laser-aimed handgun is plenty.

levelIIAShieldWHAT’LL A SHIELD STOP, you may be asking by now. All the available ballistic shields stop baseball bats, thrown rocks, knives, chemical agents and onrushing bad guys in ways that a vest just can’t. For that sort of protection, shields have no equal. However, this is a balancing act. A briefcase or clipboard shield is like a pocket pistol. It’s nobody’s first choice, and hard to use well. A full-size Level IV is like a heavy machine gun – you’ll want wheels and a pickup to move it very far. According to Blowers’ thinking, Level IIIA shields offer the best balance. They stop all common handgun and shotgun cartridges – including 12-gauge slugs. When his department decided to retire some older IIIA shields, Blowers trotted one out to the range for testing. The shield stopped everything it was rated to stop – including 12-gauge hunting slugs and a broadhead hunting arrow. The viewport took multiple .45 hits in the same spot before it finally failed. The slug pushed out a fair-size dent in the back of the shield – but it stopped it.

Most shields have a standoff device to deal with back face deformation like this; some use a pad, while others use nylon webbing. Keep in mind, shields can stop a hard impact like that without “taking the hit” on your flesh the way you would wearing a soft vest. Vest owners often wear tiny shields (“trauma plates”) to spread the blow and protect their sternum from impacts like that. But what won’t a shield stop? After that initial test, Blowers set up a mannequin wearing a IIIA vest behind the shield and fired the common 62-grain M855 “green tip” 5.56 NATO at it. The bullet punched the shield and continued through the vest, the dummy, and the IIIA vest’s back panel before drilling a hole through the support structure beyond. Yowza!

Congress decreed the mild-steel-cored M855 to be non-armor piercing through legislation, but to soft armor and light shields, it’s a major threat. Rifle ammo of any form will punch IIIA, making a chest plate mission critical equipment if that’s part of the expected fight. To stop rifle ammo, you need Level III, and common low-grade penetrators like the “green tip” demand Level IV. Such armor weighs four times as much as typical IIIA, transforming that nimble, 20-pound IIIA shield I mentioned earlier into an unwieldy 80-pound slug. Even the neat little IIIA 20x30s offered by Hardwire go to almost 20 pounds for Level III. Want Level IV in that size? Forget it.

Ballistic shields have come a long way since Roman times – this dry erase board
at a sandwich shop is actually a Level IIIA shield, and runs around $300. The
manufacturer, Hardwire, began selling them in early 2013. (HARDWIRE LLC)

WORKING WITH BLOWERS’ CREW, I learned why shield men treasure reliable super-high-capacity magazines. Take a moment and imagine reloading while holding a shield in one hand. Now try clearing a double-feed. We all did it, but it’s slow – very slow. “Take this part of the pistol and punch yourself in the thigh,” coached Blowers – pointing to the area just ahead of the rear sight, then punching himself with it. By driving the pistol hard at his thigh, the slide would “stick” against his pant leg while the frame glanced down and away, cycling the slide. Like most techniques of this sort, let me say right off: Don’t try this at home (or your home range) until you get proper training in it prior to live fire.

There are very real risks for accidental discharge (as Blowers emphasized) if you don’t perform it properly. Blowers warned us repeatedly, and emphasized indexing (keeping the trigger finger on the frame) while keeping the muzzle pointed away from yourself or others. For me, the technique worked OK on plain cloth, but worked great if I could hook my pants pocket with the rear sight. Does it work? Sure enough, during the live fire section, my trusty G17 jammed. Thanks to Blowers’ coaching, I was able to punch myself and get back in the fight in seconds.

IN THE MARKET FOR a shield after reading this article? A little shopping online gave me a wide range of bullet-resistant options. Hardwire’s “notched” 20×30-inch Level IIIA with no viewport costs just $549, about what you’d spend for a Glock or S&W M&P. A curved shield, Level IIIA with viewport, runs $1,500. A briefcase/backpack insert goes for as little as $99. Top IIIA shields meant for heavy law enforcement use run in the neighborhood of $2,500 apiece – including the floodlights and other goodies.

Realistically, a full-size shield is something like a sports car – expensive, specialized, but tremendously good at what it’s designed for. They’re not for everyone, but when it comes to “hardening” yourself or your home against serious attack, ballistic shields are the ultimate defensive accessory.

Riding Shotgun In War On Drugs

[su_heading size=”30″]Special Enforcement Teams Go Undercover To Stem Tide Of Heroin Trafficking Across America[/su_heading]



[su_dropcap style=”light” size=”5″]I [/su_dropcap]finally got the call.

“How fast can you get here?” Sgt. Santiago asked.

“Five minutes,” I said.

“Good. We have eyes on our guy, and we are a go.”

I drove as fast as I could to the designated rally area, where I joined more than a dozen men, many with beards (some fairly long) and long hair. None looked remotely like stereotypical cops, but all were “kitted up” and ready to go.

The group packed an impressive assortment of firearms, from MP5s, M4s and a Remington 870 to Glock 17s and a few high-end 1911s (one I recognized as an Ed Brown custom job). All of the guys were wearing body armor with rifle plates, and some had added ballistic helmets. There was no joking or laughing in the ranks.

Several team members eyed me with suspicion, and for good reason. I was being allowed to witness what most citizens will never see: the inner workings of an active special enforcement team (SET). These select groups of undercover detectives are tasked with gathering solid intelligence on drug activity to target drug dealers and users for criminal prosecution. In the case of some users, this insider knowledge will prepare them to become confidential informants.

I asked permission before taking any recognizable pictures, but despite promising anonymity to the officers and their department for the sake of the mission and their security, several politely declined. Detective Blue, however, let me snap several pictures, and even smiled for a few. Others seemed to merely tolerate my presence, strategically turning their backs each time I raised my camera. But I understood. In an environment such as this, trust must be earned.

The cops assembled for this specific raid were a mix of SET teams from the city and county, and included detectives and special weapons and tactics (SWAT) members. High-tech equipment was already in place to monitor the targeted home in full high definition, so Sgt. Santiago would know if anyone attempted to enter or exit the house.

After a short drive, we reached our destination. The cops exited their vehicles with lightning speed, knowing exactly where they were going and who they were looking for. They were executing a rare “no-knock” search warrant, which exempted them from having to announce their presence prior to entering. The occupants had no idea that the hammer of justice was on its way.

During an undercover buy, a female drug dealer sold the SET team four grams of methamphetamine. Although she was already on probation for multiple drug charges, the team found countless other drugs prepared for sale while searching her house.

The suspects were known heroin dealers, and in a city still reeling from four recent fatal overdoses, including a one-year-old baby who got into its parents’ stash, the mission had taken on even more urgency.

As the team swiftly mounted the stairs in a flurry of motion, chaos appeared to take over, but appearances can be misleading. This mission was anything but chaotic to these professionals. In a moment, the door was demolished, and a well-orchestrated group movement was quickly executed, one that could have made a dance company jealous.

Within minutes, the targeted suspects were in custody, and the “all-clear” was given. No shots had been fired, and no one had been hurt. Perhaps most importantly, some very dangerous people were led away in silver friendship bracelets to be questioned prior to being booked into the county jail.


All across the country, SET detectives such as these are fighting a battle that is nearly impossible to win. It’s not a thankless job, but it can sometimes feel like it. For every dealer arrested, dozens more are waiting in the wings to take over. There is no shortage of people willing to sell dope to our families and children, and there seems to be no shortage of family members and children willing to buy.

“There’s a heroin tsunami coming,” one department captain told me. “It’s going to get much worse in the very near future.”

Following the raid, the adrenaline rush of the raid may have been over, but the real police work was just getting started. Any search for drugs and their accouterments is a tedious, time-consuming, messy and occasionally gross task. But these veterans have seen drugs hidden in all kinds of places, including shower-curtain rods and freezers, under mattresses, behind medicine cabinets, in heat registers on the floor, even inside kids’ rooms and toys. On this particular search, the SET team even took a fire extinguisher outside to make sure it was what it appeared to be. No stone or piece of furniture goes unturned.

Users and dealers also hide drugs on their person. There are places on and in the human body where people are willing to hide drugs, and more than one person has died from an overdose using these foolish methods.

The nationwide war on heroin continues at epidemic levels, and law enforcement agencies around the country are constantly in danger of falling far behind.

Once the evidence is collected, documented and bagged, it’s taken to a central evidentiary holding facility to be entered into computer system, ensuring a strong chain of custody.

This is the work life of a SET detective: observe, plan, observe some more, plan some more and chase what, at times, feels like phantom drug dealers.

The city where I’m embedded with this SET team is the embodiment of small-town America, but it is also a place where heroin has become the drug of choice, pushing meth and crack out of the way. Heroin makes its way into the U.S. primarily across our southern border, and many experts feel the opiate epidemic can be directly connected to opioid pills and the way they were marketed in the 1990s.

At one time, physicians were told that less than 1 percent of people who take opiates become addicted. According to author Sam Quinones in Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, Oxycontin was originally marketed by Purdue Pharma as a drug that was “virtually non-addictive.”

The drug cartels we read about or see on television are our neighbors. They are smart and well organized, making the SET detectives’ job even more difficult. Pursuing and investigating these businessmen and their businesses could be described as a high-stakes game of three-card monte, with the dopers dealing the cards. But this SET team continues the fight, always with hope that just one break will help stem the heroin overdoses that seem to have permeated the community.

Most of the heroin in this small town is a variety known as Mexican black tar. Cultivated and processed on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, black tar is rolled and manipulated into tiny balls, and then inserted into balloons. The least processed variety of heroin, because of its purity it is the most lethal. Depending on the region of the country, a black tar balloon will cost $10 to $30, and can keep an addict high for a few days.

Compared to opioid pain pills that can cost $1 per milligram on the street, heroin is a deal.

Not long after returning to the office following the raid, Detective Noble, one of the senior SET detectives, received a call from an informant. A lady was looking to sell some meth, but the deal had to take place within 15 minutes. The office quickly turned into a beehive. Noble got into a buy car, an undercover vehicle only used for undercover drug deals, while the rest of us drove to different locations to set up a perimeter around the meeting point.

A sample of the drugs and paraphernalia seized in the initial SET raid.

During the set-up, the dealer kept changing the location in hopes of ensuring that her client wasn’t a cop. I was out on the perimeter with Sgt. Santiago, listening via a receiver to what was happening inside the buy car.

Finally, the dealer approached Noble’s car and got in. She sold him 4 grams of meth for $120, but wouldn’t sell him the two balloons of heroin she had hidden on her person. When the take-down signal was given, all officers converged on the dealer as she exited Noble’s car right in front of her house.

The look on her face was priceless. She denied having sold drugs until Sgt. Santiago explained that the man in the car was a cop, and that we had heard the entire deal. Since she was on probation for other drug offenses, the team called her probation officer, who came out and helped with the search. The search yielded Oxycontin, morphine, Clonidine, meth, heroin and Oxycodone, and other pills and paraphernalia were collected and bagged as evidence.

Later, I had the opportunity to speak with several members of the team, including Detective Polaris, who surprised me with his candidness and honesty.

“I’m not here to make enemies,” he told me. “I’d rather make friends. These people are going through tough times, and they need to know that someone cares. It doesn’t mean I won’t take them to jail. Sometimes that’s what they need, but my hope is that they find a way out of the drug life.”

Detective Polaris relayed a story, with tears in his eyes, of saving a woman’s life as she tried to commit suicide. The woman had a three-month-old baby, and was able to see and hold her infant once she was safe and in the hospital. According to Polaris, the baby just stared and smiled at him and his rookie partner. The woman still calls Polaris to this day to thank him, and to provide an update on her life. “This is why I became a cop,” he tells me.

Detective Puller has been an officer for five years, and has been with SET for six months. A former active-duty Marine and now in the Army Reserve, discipline and service are his go-to attributes. He has a kind demeanor and a disarming smile. These qualities provide a unique ability to make suspects feel comfortable, and comfortable people talk.

The newest member of SET, Detective Gigante is a quick study in the art of interviewing a suspect. I watched him interview one on the street, and his calm demeanor kept the young lady talking until she had reached the point of no return. Gigante calmly showed her his phone and asked, “How do you think I got these texts?” The game was up, and the girl is now in the process of becoming a confidential informant.

Others are more reserved and quiet. Detective Noble, who looks much younger than he is, tends to keep to himself. He’ll make small talk, but isn’t much on being interviewed. But you know that under his quiet exterior is a brain constantly at work, figuring out how to stay ahead of his targets.

Black tar heroin in its most basic, powdered state (WIKIPEDIA COMMONS PHOTO)

Sgt. Santiago is the “old man” of the bunch. He’s been a cop for more than 20 years, but remains in good physical shape and is a solid leader for his young group of detectives. There are no short cuts allowed on his team, and each process is done the right way. This includes everything from the way probable cause is acquired and writing search warrants to the gear he requires them to wear in the field. He expects his men to wear full-body armor including ballistic helmets when entering a house for a variety of reasons, including one that is very personal.

“I hate delivering death notices,” he confided. “And I refuse to deliver a death notice to the wife of one of my detectives because I let them forgo wearing their protective gear. The gear isn’t a 100 percent guarantee [on safety], but I won’t allow my guys to take that chance. There is no leeway or negotiation on this point.”

The years of working SET and other drug task-force assignments have taken a toll on Santiago. He has grown tired of seeing the worst that mankind has to offer. He would love nothing more than to open a beachside bar in the Caribbean, where he could make mojitos and scuba dive for the rest of his life. But that second career will have to wait. He still has a lot of police work left in him.

Other than Santiago, each SET detective will return to regular patrol after the four-year stint on the team is up. This way, the SET squad gets to train more officers on the ins and outs of the drug epidemic that continues to plague every city in this country.

Undercover groups known as special enforcement teams (SET) or special investigation units (SIU) spend countless hours working with drug addicts and other informants to help take down dealers who present an ongoing threat to the general public. From left to right, Detectives Gigante and Polaris, Sergeant Santiago, and Detectives Noble and Puller pose with some of the tools of the trade.

Just because you haven’t seen the problem first-hand doesn’t mean it does not exist. The opiate epidemic is growing worse by the day, with no end in sight. But thanks to leaders such as Sgt. Santiago and his dedicated team duplicated on police forces across the nation, it is a battle that will continue to be fought with commitment, knowledge and bravery. ASJ

Editor’s note: The names of the officers in this story have been changed to protect their location and identity.