Opinion: Implications for Future Active Shooter Response
The term ‘active shooter’ must evolve, as should law enforcement’s response, policies, and training on active incidents.
The horrific shootings in Uvalde, Texas have thrust the issue of active shooter response back into the national consciousness. There has been no end of debate about whether responders waited too long to make dynamic entry to neutralize the threat, the quality of the active shooter response training Uvalde officers had undergone, the quality of incident command, etc.
This debate is premature. The FBI is conducting a study of every aspect of this terrible event, and numerous recommendations undoubtedly will be forthcoming. Nevertheless, certain conclusions can be drawn now, and these conclusions should inform discussions about future active incident response operations, and tactics. The purpose of this article is not to judge the actions of the Uvalde responders. Rather, it’s to identify bigger issues that affect all active shooter responses.
The Active Shooter Issue
Most active response training addresses two situations:
- An active shooter requiring immediate neutralization of an ongoing threat. Immediate entry by officers, relying on only those tools and weapons on their person, and engaging the shooter immediately via dynamic entry or some other tactic is the mechanism to end the threat.
- A hostage/barricade, in which response is slowed and the situation calmed to facilitate hostage negotiation without further loss of life.
The problem is these situations are not so cut and dried. Let us imagine a shooter has already killed some but on-going gunfire has stopped. Could this situation now be considered to have evolved to a hostage/barricade, therefore requiring patience? In short, the situation is indeterminate. How is an on-scene commander or a contact team in the building to proceed?
Part of the problem stems from the U.S. government definition of an active shooter. For instance, the FBI defines an active shooter as “one or more individuals actively (emphasis added) engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” One could infer from this definition that once the shooting stops, the active shooter situation has ended. How should responders treat such an indeterminant circumstance, especially when confirming information about the actual circumstances is not immediately available?
The First Responders’ Dilemma
Consider what the initial responders and incident commander may know in the initial stages of an active shooter response in which the shooting has stopped:
- The shooter has already killed several individuals
- There may be hostages locked in the classroom with the shooter
- The shooter may have committed suicide.
Further, consider information known in general about active shooter situations that might encourage immediate entry:
- Many active shooter victims die from bleeding out
- Many shooters commit suicide upon being confronted by responders, thereby ending the carnage
- Dynamic entry, resulting in the expeditious neutralization of the threat, limits additional casualties.
Finally, consider the imponderables:
- Would the shooter decide to resume taking more innocent lives upon becoming aware of a contact team’s imminent entry?
- Where are the hostages located, and how many might be killed before the shooter could be eliminated? We know, for instance, that in Christchurch, Aurora, and Virginia Tech eight or nine people were killed each minute, partly because they clustered in a corner, simplifying the shooter’s targeting task.
- Could the shooter be fortifying his position?
- How likely would the shooter be to negotiate with responders or show mercy to his potential victims when he had shown none to those already shot?
One more thing the incident commander would know, with certainty: he will likely be damned for whatever decision he or she makes; if immediate entry is ordered, more victims might die; if entry is delayed more victims might die if the shooter decides to resume the assault. This dilemma illustrates the uncertainty of command, especially when perfect information is not available or, if available, is obscured by inaccurate information, the fog of war, etc. In short, it is easy to make post hoc assessments and identify errors, but the retrospective knowledge we have after the fact obscures the dilemmas of command at the time.
In light of the uncertainties discussed above, how may a commander proceed?
Re-emphasize Immediate Response to Active Shooters
In a circumstance in which a shooter has already murdered multiple individuals, responders are obliged to assume the worst, that is the resumption of murder, and proceed accordingly. Several factors support this perspective:
- One cannot count on the tender mercies of a mass murderer to end his rampage. What would be the incentive, apart from mercy, which is hardly a realistic expectation?
- This grim assessment is supported by the goal of active shooters: a maximum body count. Therefore, additional deaths must be anticipated, making prompt dynamic entry imperative.
The decision should not be based on the consideration that additional victims might die if entry is made. Rather, given the propensity of an active shooter to keep on shooting, the proper question is how many more innocents might die if entry is not made. To assume that no more deaths will occur upon the arrival of law enforcement is an unrealistic expectation that encourages second-guessing by commanders rather than on the decisiveness needed to resolve an already tragic situation.
Where Do We Go from Here?
No recommendations can overcome the uncertainty, fear, and horror of an active shooter situation. Nevertheless, we have come a long way since the 1999 Columbine mass shooting. Tactics have evolved, favoring immediacy of response by patrol officers; the development of the Rescue Task Force (RTF) concept; the proliferation of tactical emergency casualty care kits and Stop the Bleed training and equipment; and regular tactical training are but a few of the advances.
The following observations may help further develop our body of knowledge and, more importantly, save lives in the future:
- Go beyond response. Most active shooter training focuses almost exclusively on the response of first responders. However, responsibility for dealing with active shooters goes far beyond police. There are roles for administrators, students, teachers, staff, employees, especially in the prevention, mitigation and recovery phases of a crisis. Telling people “if you see something, say something” is not enough. They need to know what to look for and how and why to report concerning behavior. Threat assessment teams, information sharing within an organizaton and between local agencies is also important. Few institutions have conducted table-top exercises with internal and external entities to identify and develop plans for the issues they will confront. This must be done.
- The active shooter definition must evolve. I believe this term constrains responders when active killing is not on-going. To define active shooter situations on ongoing killing encourages indecision. Ongoing killing should not be the sole determinant of what constitutes an active shooter situation; the possibility of renewed killing and the recognition that additional wounded could subsequently perish if immediate action is not taken should be incorporated into the definition.
- Policy must evolve. Immediate response to mass casualty incidents should be emphasized and deference should be given to the on-scene commander who is closest to the situation. Also, realistic criteria of success, such as minimizing rather than entirely preventing additional deaths should be promulgated.
- Training should evolve. Active shooter and hostage/barricade situations are not “either/or” ideal types; active shooter and hostage/barricade situations may change from one to the other, and back again. Therefore, responder training must provide the skills, tools, and abilities to transition from one to the other at a moment’s notice, even in the middle of an operation. An important part of this training for both on-scene commanders and responding officers will be the ability to articulate why a particular course of action was selected. Training responders to address one or the other reduces their flexibility and potentially endangers both themselves and the victims.
- The Rescue Task Force (RTF) concept should evolve. Local exercises suggest that RTF teams are unlikely to be available to enter warm zones for at least 18-20 minutes into the event. The bifurcation of responsibilities between contact teams and RTF teams should be reconsidered. Contact team members, especially if the team is greater than two or three officers, might be in the best position to apply tourniquets to injured citizens in a hot zone, and teams of arriving officers may be able to enter the building to begin life-saving activities long before the RTF is ready to begin operations.
Don’t Just Focus on Police Response
Numerous uncertainties will attend any active incident, especially when information is not perfect and assailants’ behaviors do not fall into obvious categories. Nevertheless, recent incidents show the need for our training and our definition of the threat to evolve as they have in the past.
In the meantime, the focus on law enforcement response should not obscure many other, and perhaps more, contributory factors to the horrors of gun violence such as the demise of the nuclear family, mental health issues, and a culture that promotes victimhood and self-indulgence. Better police training, gun control and even red flag laws will not solve the problem of active shooters that plagues us today.
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