Active shooter training typically focuses on core concepts such as contact teams. I’m all good with that as the first response. When a deranged individual starts killing, the No. 1 priority is to get officers into the location, find the suspect and stop him. That’s how we halt the drama and trauma.
But there are other important aspects that share the immediacy of our response. How does the first supervisor on scene juggle these priorities? What’s the agency’s protocols? Has there even been any training on a supervisor’s responsibilities under such circumstances? Unfortunately, too often agencies aren’t prepared to handle such an event.
Wham! An active shooter event just blasted off. Adrenaline spikes as 911 calls overload the phones. The sergeant’s brain struggles to shift from neutral to “Warp Factor 3” as the first anxious transmissions cascade over the radio.
First of all, the sergeant has to get there, right? Nothing good will come of it if he roars through the streets with the speed and recklessness of a rookie cop, crashing before ever reaching the scene. Max multitasking is required under such circumstances. But the priority is to safely arrive.
Once on scene, dialed-in sergeants start earning their pay. They must determine as accurately as possible the true nature of this unfolding event.
In truth, it may not be clear until much later, but the supervisor should make at least an attempt to define the circumstances: Is it an active shooter like Aurora, Colo., or a criminal act such as LAPD’s North Hollywood bank shootout? Yes, it’ll be difficult but that initial evaluation is important. If it isn’t correctly diagnosed as an active shooter, that assessment may drive the response in the wrong direction.
The first supervisor is responsible for significant and continued decision-making. Where to make entry into the location? How to accomplish a positive breach, even if the suspect has barricaded the door? Which way if there are no gunshots to focus on? Will the team pass the wounded, leaving them unattended as the hunt for the suspect is pressed? What’s the best way to accomplish the mission while keeping the officers as safe as possible? These are significant questions but only constitute a small sampling of the challenges ahead. Supervisors who keep a clear head and give sound tactical directions during such an emergency will be role models for the moment and for the future.
One of the first questions will be whether to go in with the first few officers as a contact team leader or stay outside and start managing the incident. What’s the right answer? It depends.
Follow Me: Option One
The first option is for the supervisor to lead. The sooner officers begin hunting for the suspect, the more likely it is that he’ll either kill himself or shift his attention toward us and away from the victims. Cops have a duty to place themselves in harm’s way to save civilian lives. (There is even logic behind arriving officers immediately enter the target location solo.) In this context, my admiration for the individual acts of Sergeants Kimberly Munley and Mark Todd at Ft. Hood is immense.
Under some conditions, a supervisor should take charge of the initial contact team. A strong authority-based presence could be critical, especially if no one else is capable of that leadership challenge. I’m sure you’re one of those courageous cops who will take a deep breath, put together a hasty plan and move toward the threat. Unfortunately, there are other police officers who may not have that warrior mindset.
I’ve worked with some who clearly didn’t have this attitude, including a few who were “tactical mindset eunuchs.”
During the 1992 Rodney King riots, I was sent to Los Angeles with a squad of officers. As we rolled through the darkened South Central L.A. streets, one officer evidenced a mindset that was as shaky as his weapons handling. At one point, I realized he had his shotgun at port arms, but with the muzzle pointing toward my head rather than out through the passenger window. I had to monitor and direct him more than the other officers with us. If I could have, I probably would have sent him to the doctor to get a prescription for a backbone.
At an active shooter incident, supervisors identifying such a deficiency of courage must choose between ordering these personnel to move in and leaving them outside. Bottom line: The overwhelming mission is to stop the violence. We know that an aggressive police presence changes the active shooter dynamics. Getting every available officer involved is a priority. If another “alpha” warrior cop isn’t there, then the supervisor may have to form officers into a contact team and lead them to the fight.
Option Two: Assign a Capable Officer
There’s another option dependent upon the quality of the arriving officers. Should at least one or two possess the character and competence to press forward as team leader, then the supervisor should assign them to do so. While not always preferable under these conditions, supervisors should recognize that broader responsibilities await them and are directly related to the incident’s resolution.
Step One, then Step Two
Beyond the need for immediate intervention, supervisors who are solid thinkers under this type of stress should have two priorities in their craniums. First is to clearly communicate over the radio that you’re now the Incident Commander (IC). For at least the immediate future, this makes the IC the primary decision-maker.
The second priority is to establish an initial command post. However, this shouldn’t be confused with a more formal approach under “normal” conditions. There will be a need for a more structured CP (along with perimeters and other operational niceties) later. But right now, there has to a centralized point of authority and delegation to manage the pending police tidal wave.
Consider now where to position the supervisor’s patrol unit. In SWAT operations, we talk about the CP being “two turns” away from the problem. But for the immediacy of this response, the sergeant’s patrol car may become the rally point. It should be positioned to minimize exposure from hostile fire, but also be clearly visible to responding units. Broadcasting the exact location would help if you can get the word out over all the chaotic radio traffic. Responding cops will often orient themselves based on where the units that arrived before them are located.
I’ll close with two friends who I’ll always hold as role models.
Danny Staggs and I grew up together and we both became cops. He wrapped up his time with the Los Angeles PD as president of its Police Protective League. His street cop ethics and clear focus on right and wrong defined him. When I think of leadership facing tough decisions, Danny’s one of my heroes. There’s no doubt he could properly manage an active shooter event as the first supervisor on scene. But this fact also comes from the way he handled a cancer diagnosis. His courage and concern for others when he could have turned inward instead amazes me. He lost his fight—but on his terms—earlier this year. He was a good friend, a good man and a great police officer.
Sgt. David Shoemaker, USMC, is next. On November 2nd, 1967, he was killed in action during his third Vietnam War combat tour. I still have the posthumous Silver Star citation they awarded him for his courage that day. Dave’s platoon was about to be overrun by the NVA. He was in charge, directing the defense of their position. When the perimeter was breached, Dave was killed leading his Marines in a counterattack. Their combat position held, the NVA attack was repelled and lives were saved. Clearly, Dave passed before active shooter events became part of our collective vocabulary. But if you ask me, he had a parallel warrior mindset and used tactics similar to those needed for a police response.
To me, these brave men are examples of the decision-making and decisive action required from supervisors during an active shooter event. Along with preparing for that day, I suggest that you find your own role models like Danny Staggs and Dave Shoemaker.
Train safe. God bless America.
What to Do
Following is a short, preliminary checklist for supervisors once the CP is established.
1. Name the incident and its nature: Put a label on the event. Example: “Lamb School Active Shooter”
2. Assess the incident: What’s needed to start controlling the ongoing event? Along with the obvious—i.e., asking for more bodies—the smart incident commander will ask for more supervisors to help manage the response. Grab anyone with stripes and put them to work helping you.
3. Delegate incident responsibilities:
+ Additional contact and/or rescue teams
+ Initial triage area (inside the location, outside or both?)
+ Operations supervisor and scribe to assist in handling/tracking personnel and assets
+ Mission update broadcasts to personnel and shared with command staff
+ Staging areas for law enforcement, fire and other resources
+ Safe holding areas and/or reunification points for uninjured evacuees
+ Perimeters and traffic control
+ PIO officer who designates a media area
+ Assignment of a planning supervisor to develop future courses of action