The next generation of active shooter response

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Mike Wood
Author: Mike Wood

On August 1, 1966, a troubled man killed his mother and wife with a knife, and then climbed the clock tower at the university he attended with a collection of guns and ammunition. The military-trained rifleman began to fire upon his fellow students and members of the community from the observation platform of the tower, located about 230 above the ground below.

Police responded to the scene at the University of Texas, Austin, and one of them was killed by a long distance shot from the sniper’s perch. Armed citizens and police officers with personal rifles fired upon the sniper’s position from the ground, and managed to suppress some of his fire, but were unable to stop him. That dangerous task was eventually accomplished by a team of two police officers and one armed citizen who executed a pincer movement on the shooter, and killed him with a shotgun. Sadly, that didn’t happen until after the shooter had killed 14 and wounded 31 during the 96-minute incident.

Early growth of active shooter response protocols

The “Texas Tower” shooting shocked the nation and concerned the law enforcement profession. Although the Austin Police Department officers (and armed citizen) showed great courage in assaulting the sniper’s position, it was clear that regular patrol officers lacked the training and equipment necessary to solve these problems quickly and efficiently – a better solution was needed.

A year before the shooting, the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office created the first SWAT teams in the nation in response to the deadly Watts Riots. The specially trained and equipped officers on these teams were better suited to handle tactical emergencies like the Texas Tower shooting, which encouraged strong enthusiasm for the concept. While the August 1965 Watts riots were the genesis of the first SWAT teams, the Texas Tower shooting catapulted the idea onto the national stage and prompted their widespread adoption.

Prior to the Texas Tower incident, law enforcement response to sniper events was ad hoc, but after the Texas Tower shooting, the default protocol turned toward having patrol units isolate and contain the event until SWAT could arrive on scene, take over the response and resolve the emergency. The first generation of “active shooter” response had been born.

The new protocol worked its way into the conservative – and slowly changing – law enforcement culture during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, with the “War on Drugs” raging, the SWAT concept was firmly established in all corners of the land, and the “surround and call out” protocol was the de facto standard for tactical emergencies like sniper attacks or the mass murders that would later be termed “active shooter” attacks.

The strategy was widely accepted, but its drawbacks would soon be exposed in a horrific attack.

Another paradigm shift in response

On April 20, 1999, a pair of disaffected high school students murdered 12 of their fellow students and one teacher, and wounded 21 more students, at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado. The pair had originally planned to kill the majority of their victims with homemade explosives, but when they failed to detonate, they committed all of the murders with their firearms.

Several responding deputies engaged the killers with their pistols from the perimeter of the school, but were unable to stop the murderous pair. In accordance with the standards of the day, the deputies set up a perimeter to prevent additional victims from entering the scene, and called for assistance from the department’s SWAT team. As additional patrol personnel arrived, they helped to evacuate wounded students from the perimeter, but no law enforcement officers entered the school to locate and stop the killers until the SWAT team assembled and deployed. By this time, the killers had committed suicide.

In the wake of Columbine, the public and law enforcement realized that the “surround and call out” strategy used by the deputies at the high school was a failure. While deputies established the perimeter outside and worked to contain the situation so that the violence would not spread to surrounding areas, students were being actively killed by the pair of unopposed murderers on the inside.

This unacceptable situation led to the development of tactics encouraging responding patrol officers to make entry before the arrival of SWAT and confront the killers. This concept went through several evolutions in the first decade of the new millennium, with an early emphasis on delaying entry until a 3- or 4-man team could be assembled giving way to models that encouraged solo officers to make entry without delay. This second generation of active shooter response represents the current state of the art in American policing, and has been proven to save lives in several active shooter events.

Wheels turning slowly

A friend of mine, reflecting on the post-Columbine changes in active shooter response, recently remarked that, “The progress we made in a decade or so is pretty amazing, when you think about it.”

He’s right. Law enforcement culture has always been slow to respond to change. American police officers carried double-action revolvers for almost a hundred years before they moved to semiautomatic pistol technologies that had been successfully fielded 70-plus years before by the military. Some of the nation’s largest departments carried round-nosed lead or full metal jacket ammunition that had been obsolete for decades before upgrading to jacketed hollowpoint projectiles in the 1990s.

It is a testament to the hard work of police professionals that they were able to change the baseline standard from “surround and call out” to “immediate entry” in such a short period. There have been some notable exceptions to the general rule – and they have shocked the senses of both the police and the public – but the greater police culture has embraced protocols that encourage immediate entry by available officers to stop the killing, and we’re better off for it.

Moving the ball down the field

Now that we’ve institutionalized those changes, it’s time for American police to consider the next step in active shooter response.

Second generation immediate response protocols represent the best hope for saving the lives of innocent victims after the police arrive at an active shooter event, but cannot mitigate the loss of life that occurs prior to the arrival of officers on scene. The time between the start of killing and the arrival of police represents the most lethal period in most active shooter events as the attacker operates unopposed.

There is no doubt that American police are committed to saving innocent lives. They take their duty to protect the public seriously, often sacrificing their own safety and lives to do so. With second generation, immediate-entry protocols, they have maximized their opportunity to save lives after arriving on scene, often at their own peril.

We respect and honor them for this commitment, but the time has come to issue a new challenge to law enforcement. If American police want to save the greatest amount of lives in active shooter events, they need to focus their talents and efforts on improving the public’s response prior to the arrival of police.

What law enforcement can do

While most agencies conduct some form of public education and outreach – where a token “community services officer” might conduct some neighborhood watch sessions, teach a few “Run, Hide, Fight” classes, or do some security inspections – few agencies commit significant resources toward enhancing public education and readiness on safety issues.

“But that’s not the police’s job,” some will protest. “They aren’t responsible for training the public, only providing a service to them when they call.”

Honestly, they’re right. There is no charter that requires the police to take an active role in training and educating the public. The police have little-to-no formal responsibility for anything that happens “Left of Bang.”

This is why we’re discussing the topic in the context of a cultural change in law enforcement. The old beliefs and methods would have to surrender to a new way of thinking. The paradigm would have to shift in order for law enforcement to move into a third generation of active shooter response.

A third generation of active shooter response would see law enforcement taking a more active role in activities like:

Working with schools to improve the security culture, conduct professional site surveys and threat assessments, and put rigorous security protocols in place, to include a more robust school resource officer program; Working with the public and legislature to facilitate the formation and implementation of School Guardian, School Marshal, or armed teacher programs; Hosting and facilitating training courses conducted by outside organizations like ALICE Training Institute, FASTER Saves Lives, or regional Stop The Bleed programs; Licensing responsible adults to carry concealed firearms, and providing training opportunities for them; Working with religious institutions to conduct safety audits and put rigorous security protocols in place, to include the development of in-house security teams; Training members of the public in tactical emergency casualty care, perhaps in concert with fire/EMS or professional industry partners; Working closely with stadiums, arenas, universities, public venues, concert and festival promoters, and private security providers to provide adequate police support, and ensure that credible security and safety measures are in place for large public gatherings; Working closely with businesses and private security to ensure safety measures are in place for employees and customers.

It will take many changes, and the commitment of additional personnel and resources to make a bigger impact in these areas, but if police leaders take a more aggressive role in bolstering public readiness, there’s no doubt it will have a positive influence on the outcome of active shooter attacks. Perhaps many of these murderous rampages would even be short-circuited before the police got there. In this sense, the police would be part of the solution, even if they weren’t part of the action.

Crossroads

Law enforcement leaders are at a crossroads in regard to active shooter response. They can maintain the current path where the police have no little-to-no role in public safety until they arrive at the scene of a mass murder in progress, or they can choose a different path, where the duty to “protect and serve” is extended to help preserve innocent life in the deadly interim between the start of an attack and immediate entry.

I think it’s time to focus on the latter – to create “Left of Bang” solutions in concert with the public for predictable problems, and move into the next generation of active shooter response. It’s time for law enforcement leaders to focus on being proactive instead of reactive.

This will require a cultural change in law enforcement’s approach to active shooters, but we’ve done it before. In the words of my friend, we can make some “pretty amazing” progress when we set our mind to it.

Let’s get busy.

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