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Fortifying Police Stations

Today's police buildings incorporate technology and design to fashion facilities that are warn, inviting, AND secure.

May 16, 2011  |  by Ronnie Garrett


It was just before 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday in January when a gunman entered a Detroit police precinct and opened fire.

Pellets from the man's shotgun struck a female sergeant in a hallway. Then Commander Brian Davis raced out of his office, exchanged fire with the man, and was shot in the back.

The shooter then rushed the horseshoe-shaped front desk with his pistol grip shotgun, shooting Sgt. Ray Saati and Officer David Anderson before being killed.

Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee decided to etch the image of this terror into everyone's minds by releasing video footage captured by security cameras on-scene. The digital show of vulnerability serves to remind the public that police stations need adequate protection for officers and non-sworn employees.

"We decided very deliberatively as a command staff that there was great value in sharing this video with the media," Godbee states in the video release. He goes on to say, "It's a great value for the public to see and understand some of the pressures that we're under."

One of those pressures includes sometimes lacking the funds to properly secure police facilities. The dangerous truth is that many police stations across the country are outdated and lack security measures such as bullet-resistant glass, metal detectors, and sufficient access control. 

The Detroit precinct that was attacked was no exception. The public accessed the facility via a revolving door and two traditional glass doors. The lobby lacked bullet-resistant glass, metal detectors, or other security measures. Visitors could talk face-to-face with officers sitting behind a large rounded desk. The desk itself added vulnerability by being so high that if subjects entered the building with something in their hands-like a gun-officers behind the desk couldn't see it; until bullets began to fly.

"No place, even where police officers are working, is absolutely secure," says Sgt. Lindell Smith, media relations officer for the Artesia (N.M.) Police Department, where a new and more secure $18.6 million public safety complex opens for business this month. "But if we can do something to make sure the areas where we work and serve citizens are more secure, then that's what we need to do. Whether it's adding security cameras, key-code locks for the front door, or other security measures, it's an important step that we need to take."

Police Chief Ed Deveau of the Watertown (Mass.) Police Department agrees. While the Watertown PD moved into a new $14.2 million police facility in 2010, Deveau knows full well what it's like to work in an outdated and unsecure space. The 70-officer department, which protects a community of 35,000, once operated out of a 12,000-square-foot facility built in the 1970s. "There really wasn't any security in our old station," he says.

Deveau believes that how communities protect police officers should not vary from one locale to the other or be based on funding or a lack thereof. "There should be federal guidelines and money available to protect every officer in every station so that what happened in Detroit can never happen again," he stresses.

Warm, Inviting, But Secure

Police administrations can implement a variety of technologies to beef-up police facility security, says architect Michael James McKeon of Kaestle Boos Associates Inc., a New England-based architectural firm with experience designing police stations, including the Watertown PD's new building.

While security cameras are often top of mind in every police facility—even the old and outdated ones—McKeon says many other technologies exist to monitor and secure these buildings. "Every year, every week almost, there is new technology that can be used," he says. Everything from advanced metal detection to bullet-resistant glass and fiberglass to sophisticated access control systems can be utilized for better protection.

First and foremost, he recommends police administrators consider the transparency of these technologies. "The mission of the police department is to protect and serve in a user-friendly way," he explains. "You want the person coming in to report a domestic violence incident or crime to feel comfortable and not be put off by the security measures in place. The challenge is how do you make it open and inviting while protecting the people inside?"

In the past, bullet-resistant glass and fiberglass' lack of transparency was a drawback, says Jim Richards, vice president of Total Security Solutions, a Fowlerville, Mich., company that provides bullet-resistant products. But that's no longer an issue, he says, citing a Detroit law enforcement project where Total Security Solutions incorporated natural voice transmission into the glass, which looks more inviting than a big glass square equipped with a speak hole. The company also installed bullet-resistant fiberglass into station walls and counters, and then builders dry-walled and tiled over it.

"Police stations want the lobby to feel inviting," Richards adds. "If bullet-resistant systems are designed and installed correctly, they shouldn't be the first things you notice when you walk into the building. They should be just another component of the facility that is functional and doesn't draw attention to itself."

The bullet-resistant standard for police buildings is typically UL Level III, which will stop a 44 Magnum bullet or 12-gauge 00 buck pellets. UL Level IV is also available and can stop a .30-06, but its use greatly increases costs.

Even when using UL Level III, the technology adds dollars to a project, but Richards stresses it represents a small portion of a building's total cost. "The key to keeping costs down is to plan this technology into the project before construction begins," he says. "No one wants to go in and change the design once construction begins."

Material costs are also lower if stations do not install bullet-resistant materials all the way to the ceiling, Richards adds. While he recommends putting products to the ceiling when ceilings are low, it's only necessary to run the material approximately 5 feet above a 40-inch counter when ceilings are high. "This greatly reduces expense," he says.

Richards believes bullet-resistant materials and glass, which can be added to existing buildings as well, are something all police stations should have. "I'm often surprised by how many police stations in this country lack bullet-resistant glass or building materials," he says. "But it really wasn't a consideration for many people until a few months ago when they had those shootings in Detroit."

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