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NTOA active shooter update: Lessons learned and how threats have evolved

Analysis of 97 worldwide active shooter incidents in 2017 identifies trends to consider as we prepare to counter the active shooter threat


In this Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017 file photo, a police officer takes cover behind a police vehicle during a shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino on the Las Vegas Strip, in Las Vegas.

AP Photo/John Locher

I’ve been reporting on the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) “Active Shooter Update” at SHOT Show for several years now. It’s interesting to me that if you go back and read the previous reports from 2015, 2016 and 2017, you’ll see that while the active shooter problem has been a constant, the nature of the threat itself has been in a continuous state of evolution.

There’s perhaps nobody in the industry more attuned to that truth than Don Alwes, one of NTOA’s premiere instructors, and the driving force behind SHOT Show’s Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) Active Shooter Update each year.

What’s New

Through painstaking analysis of 97 worldwide active shooter incidents in 2017, Alwes identified several trends to consider as we prepare to counter the active shooter threat:

1. Use of edged weapons
There was a marked increase in edged-weapon attacks in 2017. Edged weapons were used in 16 of the 97 attacks (16.5%) that Don analyzed, which represents a host of complications for law enforcement. Edged weapons are easy to acquire and conceal, and require little training to employ. They are devastating in close quarters, don’t run out of ammunition and don’t give off a signature sound that can be used to help fix the location of the attacker. With simple techniques, these weapons can even be smuggled with reliability past security checkpoints employing metal detectors.

2. Increased vehicle attacks
There was also a marked increase in vehicle attacks in 2017. Vehicles were used as weapons in 13 of the 97 attacks (13.5%), and once again, this has significant ramifications for law enforcement. Vehicles are a fixture in commerce and everyday life, but it’s important for law enforcement to consider tactics for vehicle exclusion in public events and in public spaces. An additional complexity in dealing with vehicles is the recent trend in many law enforcement agencies to modify use of force policies to place strict limitations on the use of deadly force against the drivers of moving vehicles. At a time when the vehicle threat seems to be increasing, officers may ironically feel less prepared than ever to adequately defend themselves and the public from a driver intent on destruction – something for police administrators to consider, before making policy changes.

What’s Not Changed

While Don was able to shine light on some new active shooter trends, the assembled group also reflected on the idea that there really is nothing new under the sun.

For example, Don discussed the August 13, 1903 (yes, you read that correctly, 1903) Winfield, Kansas, massacre, in which an emotionally disturbed man fired upon an outdoor concert venue with a long gun, killing 9 and wounding 25 in the densely-packed crowd.

Fast forward to January 2015 when Don asked the attendees of the SHOT Show LEEP Active Shooter Update to consider the difficulties involved in responding to an active shooter event on the Las Vegas Strip, just outside the doors of the exposition center where we were meeting. A particularly memorable part of that discussion was the notion that it would be extremely difficult to rapidly fix the location of an attacker due to crowds, confusion and sound echoes. Additionally, the manpower requirements to clear a massive, multi-story building like a casino hotel – let alone several of them – were boggling.

The academic exercise in January 2015 became a horrible reality for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) in October 2017, less than three years later. The event that “nobody anticipated,” according to the mainstream media, wasn’t a surprise to students of history and the law enforcement profession.

I think the lesson here is multi-faceted:

  • We know what our vulnerabilities are;
  • The enemy does too;
  • We don’t know all the details, but we know that we’ll suffer attacks in the future;
  • We need to take advantage of the time we have to prepare for them.

Other lessons

Don’s research on active shooter events also points to the following lessons learned that he shared with LEEP attendees:

  • The first few minutes are critical. Time equals lives in active shooter attacks, so an effective response must be launched immediately.
  • Potential victims must protect themselves. There will be an inevitable delay between the initiation of the attack and the report to police. There will be an additional delay between the notification of police, their arrival on scene and their first contact with the attacker. None of these delays work in the potential victims’ favor, so civilians must be trained and equipped (emotionally and physically) to protect themselves from attack while they wait for law enforcement assistance.
  • Rapid action by the first officers on scene is imperative. The clock has been running for a while before you got there. You cannot delay your response. Time is lives.
  • Use of force policies must support the police officer. The authority to use force must be delegated to the individual officer, who will use their best judgment to make an appropriate call in real time. An agency’s use of force policy must not handicap the officer or slow response.
  • Tactical teams will arrive too late. You cannot wait for SWAT. They won’t get there in time to resolve the incident. A successful resolution of an active shooter event requires an immediate response by potential victims and patrol officers.
  • Don’t wait to build a four-man team. Early active shooter protocols emphasized building a four-man entry team and moving in formation to confront the shooter, but almost two decades’ worth of experience has shown that four-man teams rarely, if ever, stop attackers. Don is unaware of a single active shooter incident that was stopped by a four-man team in formation, but this tactic still forms the basis for many departments’ active shooter protocols.
  • Solo officer entries are essential. Agencies need to teach effective tactics for solo officer entry in an active shooter situation because time equals lives. Statistics indicate that a single officer response is the most common circumstance when law enforcement stops the active shooter.
  • Rescue and treatment of victims must begin quickly. Police must carefully coordinate with fire-EMS assets to provide rapid treatment of victims to ensure they get suitable medical care as soon as possible There are many avenues to explore here, including adding Tactical EMS (“TEMS”) personnel to police tactical teams, getting fire-EMS assets into the “warm zone” with police protection, and training law enforcement to rescue and transport victims.

In closing

I’d like to thank Don and the National Tactical Officers Association for their continued commitment to educating law enforcement about this important subject. If you would like to learn more about training opportunities with the NTOA, visit their website. Also, be sure to mark your calendars for the NTOA’s annual conference, to be held this year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on September 16-21. Don will be there, along with the rest of the NTOA cadre, to deliver more world-class instruction.

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.