A figure shrouded in black and draped with military style weapons, spare magazines and body armor bursts into a movie theater, school campus, shopping mall or office building and starts blasting away at everyone in the area. It’s an all-too-familiar headline in recent years. Active Shooter Incident (ASI) is one of the most immediate, pressing and ongoing threats to your community and your family and one that ranges from workplace violence and mass act of terrorism. The bloody and tragic results have shocked a nation that has the highest rate of homicide of any advanced nation.
The New York Police Department published a study that lists 281 active shooter attacks in the United States between 1966 and 2010, and the headlines since then are a litany of horror and destruction. Whether committed by a crazed lone-wolf gunman such as the attack in Newton New Jersey, or an organized, well-trained team of extremists such as the attacks in Mumbai, India, there are no indications that these incidents will let up any time soon. We police a nation that is unwilling to either restrict gun rights or impose controls on people who are demonstrably and dangerously mentally unbalanced. Economic weakness, civil unrest, and a mood of political discontent may add to whatever toxic stew of influences sends the violently deranged over the edge to commit these atrocities.
Most police departments and a few progressive corporate security and executive protection departments at large corporations have recognized the need for specialized training, tactics and equipment to counter the threat of active shooter attack and made efforts to address them. Patrol rifles, active shooter training, “go bags”, tactical medicine training and equipment, are just a few of the advances that have been made in the police and security community in recent years and the results have been encouraging. The 2012 NYPD study found that the median number of deaths associated with an active shooter attack is two and that 46% of the incidents were resolved with some application of force by police, security or armed citizens, and that 40% of incidents were resolved when the shooter took his own life.
While any loss of life to the acts of an armed madman is a tragedy to the victim, their family and friends, and to the traumatized communities in which the incident occurs, it’s clear that making an immediate armed response is preventing potential additional casualties. The old tactics of isolate, secure, and contain the incident and call for SWAT were revealed at Columbine and in other incidents to be too slow, ineffective, and led to casualties that might have otherwise been prevented. Often, it’s when armed police or security are closing in on the shooter that these deranged cowards take their own lives. The rapid deployment of a few armed officers creates pressure that can lead the perpetrator to resolve the crises themselves as they hear the officers closing in.
Recent incidents validate the effectiveness of this approach. In each of the three most notable recent events the suspect either surrendered or committed suicide when confronted by armed intervention. James Eagan Holmes, the killer in the Aurora Colorado Batman movie shooting, surrendered to law enforcement. Jacob Tyler Roberts, the Clackamas Town Center shooter, committed suicide after being confronted by an armed citizen. Adam Lanza, who shot and killed 26 people including 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, also committed suicide as law enforcement approached.
It’s clear that immediate response and contact by officer often causes the shooter to either barricade himself, surrender, or to commit suicide. Each of these outcomes prevents additional casualties. Most departments have implemented Active Shooter training based on guidelines developed by the National Tactical Officers Association that include recommendations that supervision be on-site, and that there be a minimum of four officers present to form a team prior to deployment. This 4-5 officer team is typically trained to deploy in a diamond, or T shaped formation that can move while simultaneously providing 360 degrees of armed cover. I have done training with several agencies throughout the Pacific Northwest and in most classes they teach that entries can, in exigent circumstances, be made with fewer than four officers.
For practical purposes and the need to efficiently get groups of officers through training in a reasonable time, however, the force-on-force scenarios conducted in training usually involved 4-5 officers. After all, if you have you have 30 officers to train and you want to get them through 3 or 4 scenarios each, it stands to reason that you can do it in half as much time if you deploy 4 man teams than you will need if you deploy them in 2 man teams. Likewise you don’t have the problems associated with a real-world deployment of personnel that are responding from geographically disbursed locations and will be arriving at different times. I have participated or observed numerous active shooter training classes and most times the scenario begins with the team conveniently assembled and waiting for the command to initiate, often having had several minutes between iterations to talk out assignments.
Therein lies a problem. The way we commonly train officers to operate is at odds with the way they are most likely to deploy in the field. Officers responding to active shooter incidents frequently arrive separately, and make contact with the shooter by themselves or in groups of two or three. The training scenarios we create lack the psychological pressure to take immediate action that those first one or two officers that arrive on scene only to hear gunshots and screaming will face.
Rather than merely running canned drills, if you conduct a full-scale operational exercise for an ASI that involves suspect and victim role-players and has the officers arriving in at staggered times with the sound of (simulated) gunshots and screams ringing in their ears, the officers will usually deploy themselves in twos or threes, and likely without much discussion in the way of team assignments. The results are predictable, especially if you have bad-guy role players intent on testing the rear security of your entry team; they get shot to pieces.
“Train like you fight” is a basic principle of military training that has been adopted by police trainers around the world. The more challenging and realistic we can make training scenarios for police officers the better their chances for survival, and those of the public they protect. Realistic training builds better skills and is more effective for mentally preparing officers for the situations they may face. Running active shooter training scenarios with teams of four and even five officers is convenient and quick, but is it the best way to train? It teaches the officers to rely on flank and rear cover assets that likely won’t exist in a real incident and reinforces the idea that they need to wait for enough people to arrive before intervening.
Often instead of making training more realistic we fall into the questionable habit of trying to make it more entertaining, if only for the training staff. This can be useful if it increases the interest level and engagement of the training audience and isn’t too distracting but it needs to be considered carefully against the need for realism. Simulated pipe bombs, trip-wire detonated IEDs that blow clouds of talcum powder, suspects with suicide vests and multiple shooters acting independently, are all examples of injects I’ve seen added to active shooter training.
It requires more planning and coordination on the part of the training staff but might be beneficial to script scenarios that cover single suspect incidents that two officers respond to, and then build up to scenarios that are more complex and require additional officers or add complicating elements like IEDs or multiple shooters.
It’s useful when conducting risk assessment to look at both the most likely situation and the most dangerous scenario. While another Mumbai style incident involving multiple attackers using both high capacity weapons and Improvised Explosive Devices is possible, the majority of incidents we have seen involve a single shooter. The 2012 update of NYPD’s comprehensive study on the subject indicates that 98% of the incidents on record were conducted by a single attacker.
Sadly America leads the world in active shooter incidents. While politicians and the public debate the causes brave men and women in blue have to take action when tragedy occurs. Analysis of previous attacks shows us that a few brave uniformed patrol officers, responding quickly to an active shooter and making immediate contact with them, has a high likelihood of limiting the carnage. By training officers with good tactics and presenting them with realistic scenarios, we will improve their ability to be successful in this most dangerous of law enforcement responses.
Gabriel Russell is a Deputy Regional Director with the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service, a Sergeant Major in the Army National Guard, and Founder and Managing Partner at Takouba Security LLC. He has a Bachelor of Arts from the Evergreen State College and a Master of Science from Central Washington University.