Active shooter incidents, although small in number, have had a terrible impact on the communities affected and the nation as a whole. In the early incidents, law enforcement responded to these disasters lacking suitable tactics and equipment, and we learned immediate defense of life requires immediate action. Unprotected and helpless victims cannot await the delayed arrival of SWAT/ERT teams. The original emergency-response strategies of contain, isolate and negotiate fail in active-shooter situations. The offenders do not come to parley they come to commit murder. The longer the police entry is delayed, the more wounded and dead.
Law enforcement must plan, equip and train patrol officers to counter the active shooter. Simply put, patrol is the first on scene and the first to the fight. This article will therefore examine issues of training and equipment first-responding officers require to prevail in these incidents.
Disaster drives change, and the need to change law enforcement training and practices has been written in blood and fire with officers and citizen s lives the currency. Even before Columbine and North Hollywood were burned into the national conscience, some in the law enforcement tactical community were calling for enhanced patrol training and equipment to respond to violent in-progress calls. These officers had clarity of vision but little administrative support. In the late 1990s and into the new century, as subsequent school and workplace attacks took place, who could deny we were untrained and unprepared? Simply massing large numbers of police officers outside an active-shooter scene did not stop the carnage.
The police tactical community took the lead. SWAT officers produced rapid deployment/response training programs in my state of Illinois and elsewhere in the country. In 1999, the Illinois Tactical Officers Association established an active-shooter training cadre and drew on the experience of our colleagues at LAPD SWAT. The core issues were developed into a patrol-officer training curriculum that was adopted by the Police Training Board/Mobile Training Unit #3. A one-day basic concepts class along with a three-day instructor class was developed.
I can t go into all these subjects in one article, so I ll list the key training elements, and then discuss associated issues.
The basic active-shooter training elements should include:
Recognition of the active shooter and review of past history;
Use-of-deadly-force update (law and policy);
Small-unit tactics/ambush avoidance;
Contact/rescue team formation and movement;
Linear movement (hallways, stairways and open space);
Fire and maneuver concepts (communicate, move, shoot);
Low-light/high-noise tactical considerations;
Weapon handling and shooting skills;
Explosives recognition and avoidance;
Avoiding blue-on-blue shootings; and
Winning mindset/finish the fight.
Prioritization of Action
Rapid response and deployment is about prioritization. First-responding officers must be directed to locate and engage the active shooter. The offender must be located, identified, fixed in place and defeated. The prime objective: Stop the killing with aggressive action and coordinated movement. This may require officers to pass by the wounded to confront the threat. The rescue mission follows with victims located and removed for medical assistance with all possible speed. Without fast action to effect rescues, victims can bleed to death.
When police officers arrive at high-stress incidents, particularly from multiple jurisdictions, radio interoperability is critical. Officers must be able to talk to one another and communicate vital information regarding the location of offenders, explosive/incendiary devices, wounded victims, strongholds and evacuation routes. Lacking common communications, officers can form into squads comprising two-to-four officers with one radio to link to other squads. This requires the local jurisdiction (or those with a common radio frequency) make their officers the communication link in a squad.
We must have capable leadership. A trained and capable officer or supervisor must take charge and give clear and useful orders. The critical ability to absorb a large number of responding police officers and coordinate a response unfortunately often remains non-existent. There must be small-unit leadership as well that coordinates the fight up front and focuses our forces on the threat.
Lacking communication, command and control, response defaults to many independent operators doing what they feel is best. Unlike a fire department response in which each unit includes a supervisor, police agencies often do not release street supervisors to respond outside their jurisdiction.
If you accept the above as true, what outcome can we expect in a school or work-place shooting? Lack of communication causes a lack of vitally needed information. Without leadership, confusion reigns and results in ineffective action, all leading to a failed response. It s absurd to believe it will all work out if we do not train and practice for such events.
Firearms & Equipment Choices
To defeat the active shooter, officers must receive continuing realistic training on and have immediate access to a firearm capable of delivering accurate fire at distances that represent the length of a hallway or gymnasium, which can exceed 75 yards. It s unrealistic and dangerous to expect officers in high-stress, life-threatening situations to direct aimed, accurate handgun fire beyond short-range training distances. Many articles have been written about firearms and ammunition choices. Bottom line: Without access to a precision-firing long gun, first-responding officers remain dangerously underequipped.
The patrol rifle/carbine has become a tool of choice nationwide. The AR-15/M-16 is the dominant weapon system in .223 caliber/5.56mm.
The federal government s LESO 1033 program makes surplus M-16A1 rifles available to law enforcement agencies for $39, making it possible for agencies with budgetary restrictions to access high-quality patrol rifles. You can convert these weapons from full-auto to semi-auto only for less than $20.
Who Will Train Us?
For the chief or sheriff who recognizes the need for active-shooter training, rapid-response training is available through many state tactical-officers associations, POST-type training groups and private training companies. Check with a potential training provider to verify the credentials of those offering the training, and get references from officers who have attended the classes.
You can debate tactics there s frequently more than one way to achieve an objective. However, law and policy are not changeable, and understanding these issues remains a vital part of the information and training process. Instructor classes should include use-of-force information to eliminate confusion surrounding lawful and justifiable actions.
The need to upgrade first-responder training and equipment is obvious and the need to do so is now. See Lessons Learned on for a brief review of two past incidents that changed police thinking and response.
The University of Texas Tower/Charles Whitman incident of Aug. 1, 1966, is our modern starting point in active-shooter review. This event served notice to law enforcement that a single committed shooter could do terrible damage unless stopped with an immediate counterattack. Law enforcement officers lacked rifles to match the threat, and Whitman continued shooting for more than an hour and a half as local citizens came to the fight with their deer rifles. Three officers and a deputized citizen finally formed what today we call a contact team.
They climbed the tower, closed with Whitman and killed him. In all, Whitman shot 31 people and killed 15 from more than 400 yards away.
The New Orleans Howard Johnson's rooftop shooter, Mark Essex, began his attacks on New Year s Eve, 1972. His trail of murders began with an attack on a police cadet at the Central Police Headquarters sally port. He ambushed and murdered a second officer at an officer complex, then roamed the city into the next day committing violent attacks, setting up ambushes for responding officers and finally moving to the Howard Johnson s Hotel. Essex set the hotel on fire and murdered two police officers and the deputy chief who sought him out. A fire lieutenant was wounded, and numerous citizens were also killed and wounded. A helicopter-to-rooftop shootout took place. It was reported that one officer who volunteered to man the helicopter fired more than 1,000 rounds from his M-16 during the aerial assaults, finally killing the offender.