Protecting citizens from killers takes bravery, aggression and speed

By Rick Armellino
Baker Ballistics, LLC

People snap and then kill
Workplace shootings, multiple murders, school shootings, and the increasing levels of attacks upon law enforcement officers add up to confirm the obvious - America is a violent and well-armed nation.

The USA Bureau of Justice Statistics defines mass murder as the intentional killing of four or more victims at one location, within one event.  Mass murderers usually fall into one of three major categories: disgruntled workers, family annihilators and individuals with mental defects.
The term "massacre" is used to identify a particularly newsworthy high-casualty count mass murdering incident, assuring the recording of its' permanent place in history.

Different eras, different tactics
Today, many police personnel are being trained to respond to active killing by following very controlled, methodical and well-choreographed tactical procedures. In an earlier and less complicated era of policing, stopping killers was a freestyle event left up to the resources of each individual responding officer.

Using a minimum of equipment and no formal training, an older generation of American patrolmen did an outstanding job of protecting the public using just raw basics: bravery, aggression and speed.  They did not have the advantage of SWAT backup, body armor, or even portable radios.  Yet, with healthy doses of common sense and testosterone these early lawmen selflessly placed themselves into hazardous situations in order to do what the public expected.

Active shooter response - A subset of IARD
Active shooter training curriculums emphasize police activities initiated after shooting has begun.  This category of response fulfills only a small segment of the much larger overall responsibility of police to its citizenry - protecting innocents from all types of physical threats to their safety, including those that are imminent and developing.  Active killing by gunfire is not the only serious threat to the publics’ safety, but it is certainly the type of police response that is receiving the most attention within law enforcement circles.

Immediate Action Rapid Deployment (IARD) tactics receive far less attention within police philosophical discussions even though it addresses immediate response to any and all potential and active threats to innocents, regardless of situation. 

Approaching deranged individuals in an effort to save the lives of innocents is not a new procedure.  Prior to the availability of reliable communications and SWAT backup, IARD tactics were commonly used by patrol to assist the endangered public.

U.S. Marines are tough opponents
When the average citizen snaps and murders, the results are bad.  When a recently trained, physically fit and well armed former Marine decides to commit mass murder the situation can be catastrophic.  On August 1st, 1966, the citizens of Austin, Texas experienced a horrific event, forever known as "The Texas Clock Tower Massacre".

An honorably discharged U.S. Marine named Charles Whitman was attending engineering school at the University of Texas in Austin and one night he snapped, savagely stabbing his wife and mother to death at each of their respective homes.  The morning after, Whitman secured his gun locker onto a wheeled dolly, rolled it into the university’s main administration building and headed up the elevator.  Weighing an estimated 250 pounds, the gun locker contained 5 rifles, 3 handguns, a sawed-off shotgun, ample ammunition, binoculars, food and water.

The Main Bell Tower at the University of Texas is shown in 1999, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
This well trained homicidal and suicidal predator had chosen a tactically superior location to play out his last living events on earth.  In addition to the University of Texas administration building being a virtual stone fortress, it was located on a hilltop that overlooked much of the City of Austin.  Exiting the elevator on the 27th floor, Whitman lugged his gun locker up the stairs to the top floor and proceeded to shoot the four occupants, gaining full control of the observation deck.

The University of Texas clock tower, surrounded by the concrete observation deck, was both a snipers' dream and a police nightmare.  The cement and stone block construction of this section of the building included recessed rain gutters, enabling him to remain low, unseen and well protected from return fire.  Whitman had a nearly unlimited ability to maneuver and change shooting positions at will.  He barricaded the doorways and then continued working his final plan - to kill every human in sight.

Charles Whitman was a well trained Marine receiving above average grades for marksmanship, excelling at hitting moving targets.  For the next hour and a half Whitman methodically fired upon the citizens of Austin, killing 16 and wounded 31, hitting some as they attempted to pull seriously wounded victims to safety and others as they peeked out from behind cover to locate the sniper’s position.  Whitman may have been a heartless deranged killer, but he was amazingly quick, agile and an exceptionally good shot.

Don't mess with Texas
The brave citizens of Austin also knew how to shoot.  Red-blooded Texans were up for the fight, outraged that this maniac was killing their own.  Some scrambled home, grabbed their most accurate weapon and hurried back to the school to exchange gunfire with the unknown sniper.

A local pilot rushed to the nearby airport and returned flying a small aircraft carrying a passenger armed with a scoped hunting rifle.  Unfortunately, low level air turbulence prevented accurate aiming at Whitman.  As the plane circled the tower it took 14 of Whitman’s well aimed rounds through various sections of the metal tube and fabric covered structure, narrowly missing both occupants.  The airmen retreated to a safe distance after realizing they were on the losing side of this air-to-ground battle.

Patrolmen respond to the tower
Two young Austin police officers, without prior coordination, steadily made their way into the administration building and up to the 27th floor.  Patrolman Houston McCoy, armed with a 12 gauge shotgun, had graduated the police academy less than three years earlier and Patrolman Ramiro (Ray) Martinez, armed with his Smith & Wesson .38 caliber duty revolver, had less than five years on the job.

Martinez, revolver in hand, recalled his thoughts as he rode the elevator up towards the unknown sniper, “of course you could see the little lights flicker (on the elevator’s panel) as the floors go by.  I said an Act of Contrition, because as a Catholic I was taught that in case of imminent death, you know, you say an Act of Contrition."  As the elevator door opened he spied Patrolman McCoy and a man with a rifle, whom he did not know but assumed, was a plain clothes officer.  The three men conversed briefly and then slowly and deliberately climbed the stairs from the 27th floor leading up to the observation deck's reception area.  Upon reaching the top of the stairwell, they found two people dead and two critically injured at the reception area.

Standing at the top of the stairs, Martinez remembers the armed plain clothes man whispered a question, “he said, ‘are we playing for keeps?’  And I looked at him, and I said, as I saw dead people there, and you know all the dead people outside, I said, ‘You damn right we are.’  He said, ‘Well, you better deputize me.’  That’s when I found out that he was a civilian.  And I said, ‘consider yourself deputized'."

The hunter becomes the prey
Patrolman Martinez began kicking the glass-paneled door leading outside to the observation deck.  It was jammed by the wooden dolly that Whitman used to transport his gun locker.  The dolly finally gave way and tipped over.  Martinez recalled this particularly anxious moment, “and then it went over, clanging.  And I braced myself. I figured that he, the sniper, could hear this.  And there was no response, but you know, all that shooting, I’m pretty sure he didn’t hear it.”

The hastily assembled contact team, including the armed citizen, stealthily made their way outside onto the observation deck.  The sniper was not in view.  The sporadic and frequent crack of rifle fire was deafening, but sound alone could not determine exactly where on the deck the sniper was positioned; it was too loud and too close.  Martinez, McCoy and the armed citizen, in line and in that order, slowly rounded the first corner.  They couldn't see the sniper because the clock tower protruded and blocked their line of sight.  Continuing their approach, they soon spotted Whitman, who was intently firing his rifle pointed over the southwest corner.  Whitman, comfortably on the attack, was unaware he was no longer the hunter and was now considered the prey.

An instant and successful attack
Wasting no time, Martinez carefully aimed his revolver and described what happened next. "That's when I fired the first round, and I charged.  I hit him - left side somewhere - and he came up with the rifle.  He was trying to turn and to fire.  I kept charging him and shooting, and McCoy was right behind me.  I hollered at McCoy to shoot, and he did - hit him with the shotgun,” Martinez said.

McCoy had instinctively shifted to Martinez’s right side and fired two shotgun rounds at Whitman.  McCoy recalls, “all of sudden he just slowly slid down into a laying position. He was no more dangerous. Still to this day I didn't need that second shot."

Prophetically, Whitman had left a written journal which, in part, specifically requested the coroner to autopsy his brain.  When accomplished, a large tumor was discovered which was applying pressure to the region of the brain that controls violent and impulsive tendencies.

It has been reported that the so-called Texas Clock Tower Massacre was the mass murder event that rallied law enforcements' call for the creation of the modern day SWAT team.
Twenty-five years later – Don’t mess with Texas, again
October 17th, 1991 was the greeting card inspired holiday known as National Bosses’ Day, so, take your boss out to lunch.  Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas was packed during lunch hour, containing at least 80 total patrons and employees.

The unfortunate people inside Luby's had no warning of the life altering mayhem and carnage they were about to witness as a pickup truck suddenly crashed through a glass windowed wall, driven by 35 year-old George Hennard.  As the startled customers and employees looked towards the accident scene Hennard climbed out.  Sam Wink was seated inside the restaurant and watched Hennard climb out, noticing he was holding a large black semi-automatic handgun.  Hennard yelled something about injustice and immediately began shooting his high-capacity 9mm Glock.  Wink remembers, "he was firing at anyone he could shoot, he had tons of ammo on him."

Panicked patrons scrambled to the rear of the restaurant, dove and cowered under tables.  Parents shielded their children with their bodies as a final sacrifice.  One man threw his body through a thick plate glass window, being severely cut as he saved himself and a few others who quickly followed.

The first phone call came into 911 as a motor vehicle crash at Luby’s, followed within seconds by a second call reporting a vehicle crash with shots fired. 

Two buildings down the street from Luby’s was a Sheridan hotel.  Inside, five Texan law enforcement officers were attending an auto theft prevention training seminar and one of the lawmen attending the class was an officer of the Killeen Police Department (KPD).  Also nearby were two KPD undercover officers out on assignment.  Police dispatch broadcast the urgent call for assistance, and all seven officers converged onto the chaotic and bloody scene nearly simultaneously.

Immediate entry is made
Captain J.W. Dunn has been with Killeen PD for 37 years and recalls the police response, “there was no waiting outside.  People were dying.  Back then there was no active shooter training.  It was spontaneous.  They entered and approached the killer from two sides.  I’m not sure if any of our officers were even wearing body armor.”

The three Killeen officers made entry into the killing zone as the other four officers established a perimeter.  Once inside the entranceway, one KPD officer positioned himself near the entrance as the other two separated and carefully preceded down opposing interior sides of the building, stalking the shooter.  Hennard was intently and actively shooting at people piled up towards the rear and was not initially aware of their presence.

The brave KPD officers courageously and aggressively engaged Hennard, repeatedly shooting and hitting him three times.  The dynamics of this massacre suddenly changed – once confronted and shot, Hennard's murdering of innocents abruptly stopped.  He lowered the Glock and bolted away from his attackers towards the rear of the restaurant.  He retreated into an alcove near the restrooms – shooting at no one else, not even at the two officers in pursuit as he was quickly cornered.

A predictable ending
Homicidal and suicidal killers of innocents are cowards, they attack the unarmed.  Once confronted by police, the murdering phase of their plan is interrupted and proceeds straight to the ending.  Only one more death and this planned event was over — Hennard wasted no time and promptly shot himself dead in the right temple.

The Luby's massacre resulted in a total of 23 people killed and 20 others seriously injured.  The entire event lasted less than fourteen minutes from beginning to end.  Thanks to the immediate and brave actions by members of the Killeen Police Department, Hennard's deadly plan was interrupted before he could shoot the remainder of the citizens trapped inside.

When waiting for SWAT has deadly consequences

  • 1984 – San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre:  No police entry during active killing.  The massacre lasted 77 minutes.  22 deaths, 15 wounded.  The killer, James Oliver Huberty fired a total of 257 rounds before he was fatally shot by SWAT sniper Chuck Foster, taking the shot from the rooftop of a nearby post office.
  • 1999 - Columbine High School Massacre:  No police entry during active killing.  The massacre lasted 53 minutes.  13 deaths, 25 wounded.  The killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fired a total of 188 rounds of ammunition and detonated numerous pipe bombs before committing suicide 2 minutes after the entry of the first SWAT personnel.
  • 2006 - Amish Schoolhouse Massacre:  No police entry during active killing.  Police had established a tight perimeter 25 minutes prior to the massacre and were waiting for SWAT, which was enroute.  The massacre lasted less than 2 minutes.  5 deaths, 5 seriously wounded (out of 10).  The killer, Charles Carl Roberts IV fired a total of 18 rounds before committing suicide.

Every police agency has a unique "culture" 
The general public expects local and state government to fulfill its' primary obligation to protect lives and property from the ravages of modern society's predators as expeditiously as possible. Some police departments have a well established culture of proactively and aggressively protecting their citizens, while others do not.

Twenty-four years after San Ysidro and nine years following Columbine scores of police departments are finally creating, for the first time, official policy addressing response and training protecting citizens against an armed and hostile individual or active shooter. Policy that will determine under what circumstances entry will occur and the speed and aggressiveness expected of their officers.

When the established culture of a particular agency is defensive and risk-adverse, the likelihood writing policy that expects an expeditious entry of patrol is unlikely. Not all police agencies trust and train their officers enough to grant them the authority and ability to take aggressive action in these situations. Waiting for SWAT is still a popular option, especially in the absence of active killing.

A “report card” on quality of leadership
The main purpose of government is to provide for the publics' safety and law enforcement is the unit of government tasked with that duty.  How quickly, efficiently, and effectively a department utilizes their patrol personnel when responding to assist a threatened innocent citizen is the de facto "report card" on the caliber of leadership currently managing that agency.

Establishment of priorities falls squarely on the shoulders of upper management.  When the physical safety of citizens is not near the top of the priority list, leadership is misguided and public safety suffers.

Virginia Tech was the “wake-up call” for this progressive chief
One career police administrator who realizes that fast aggressive pursuit of an armed intruder in a public area is vitally necessary to save lives is Chief Marvin Fischer of the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Farmingdale, New York.

Chief Fischer has made available to his officers; graphite stocked and holographic sighted M-4 long-guns, Baker Batshield® portable ballistic shields, ballistic helmets with clear armor face visors, and leg armor.  If time and circumstance allows, a responder can gear-up with complete "head to toe" ballistic protection, totally dominating entry into the killing zone.

SUNY Farmingdale training instructors are currently teaching the entire department the skills necessary for their officers to take the initiative, using the new equipment, to save lives.  Says Fischer, “Virginia Tech was a wake-up call. This type of random violence can happen anywhere. I have been informed that SWAT assistance from the county could be as long a wait as thirty minutes and this is unacceptable”.
Fischer recognizes the difficultly of asking some officers to become the hunters, “some of my older officers were hired on in the 1980’s as unarmed security guards and even they are now learning how to pursue armed individuals and will be prepared to neutralize the threat if that is what’s needed.  The mindset and training necessary to stop active killing demands a lot of our officers, but we have no choice but to prepare for the worst.”

Clash of cultures - Officer safety versus public safety
Officers have a job to do and no one expects them to become kamikaze warriors to save lives.  However, few expect them to remain passive observers of violence, either.  Somewhere in-between these two extremes exists a realistic policy that combines the proper balance of both officer and public safety.

Police training teaches officers to be responsible for their own safety first, their partners second, and the general public third.  The balance between officer safety and aggressive response to extremely dangerous situations is a tough balance that has no clear-cut answer.  Generally, as officer safety increases, public safety decreases.

The ability to pick and choose the location, timing and terms of the fight is the ultimate survival skill.  Officers should, whenever possible, limit conflicts to those which offer overwhelming odds of winning.  During an active shooter event this is impossible.  The violent predator determines when and where the fight, death or surrender will occur.

When the fight can be avoided, does everyone win?  Not always.  Innocents trapped within close proximity to armed and hostile individuals are placed into much greater physical danger by a passive and non-aggressive police response.  Hope is NOT a strategy.  Every armed and hostile intruder must be considered homicidal and suicidal - a predator that has not yet entered the killing phase of their plan.

Upon initial patrol arrival, there may be no indication of killing in progress.  Department policy that requires first responders to wait outside for the sound of gunfire within a structure to signal an entry emboldens the predator and grants the homicidal and suicidal individual more time to continue working their plan.  Plus the fact that killing inside may be occurring by knife attack or other silent methods.

Hoping for the best should never be a component of any emergency response strategy.  Law enforcement cannot rely upon the “human goodness” of an invader not to inflict deadly violence upon innocents for the same reasons law enforcement trains officers to anticipate violence against themselves from every criminal suspect.  Early contact is key.

Many agencies that have elected to use patrol assets for active shooter response have established policy that mandates time-consuming pre-conditions that must be met before entry is authorized to occur.

Common pre-conditions before entry – Waiting for:

  • Sounds of gunfire
  • The optimum amount of responding officers to arrive
  • Arrival of special weaponry and/or armor
  • Communication with or arrival of supervisory personnel
  • Accumulation of information

Time works in the favor of the predator
During a homicidal and suicidal invasion, time works in the favor of the predator, always.  Howell Township, NJ lawman Kevin Stout has the necessary response timing figured out and it does not work in favor of the predator. Stout has twenty-nine years in law enforcement, twenty-six of those years as a SWAT operator and is currently the commanding officer for the county's SWAT team.  He also serves as the New Jersey Chapter president of the Mid-Atlantic Tactical Officers’ Association.

Stout is emphatic, "one properly trained individual officer taking immediate action can make the difference at the scene of a crisis", reminding us of a quote from a Russian military officer interviewed by John Giduck in his book Terror at Beslan, "There are two things you can be certain of, there is going to be a fight and people are going to die - our job is to limit the death".  Stout continues, "I think these words ring true during every active shooting event that has been recorded. Law enforcement may not be on scene early enough to save every life, but once on scene they have to get into the fight, take the fight to the assailant, disrupt the assailants’ actions preventing any further loss of innocent life, then eliminate the threat."

What if this and what if that?
It is possible to "what if" a response to an armed and hostile individual into a snail-like process that does little good to protect the public.

Once entry is made, the amount of time it takes to enter the killing zone is greatly affected by the type of policy, training, and equipment dedicated for this purpose.  Officers should quickly move towards the suspected killing zone using a variable speed of movement to accommodate perceived threats to their security, which are likely to be plentiful.

Successfully engaging active shooters is dynamic and is considered a “close quarter battle” (CQB) operation. The U.S military conducts many hazardous entries and continuously reminds their operators that during an approach into the killing zone "speed is safety".  Moving targets are tough to hit, slow and stationary targets are “sitting ducks”.

At some point during this process a police officer will likely need to assume a greater personal risk than desired in order to save lives.  Will every door and room be searched while proceeding towards the suspect or sound of gunfire?  Will every citizen be challenged and searched before being allowed to pass?

In most cases, back-up is not far behind and can deal with some of these time-consuming procedures.  The next wave of rescuers can assist with the living, dead, and dying, while they attempt to prevent the escape of any perpetrators and/or accomplices.

When gunfire is heard the level of risk grows dramatically in direct proportion to the speed of getting to the threat.  That is the nature of the response.  The primary mission is establishing contact with the threat(s) in order to minimize the deaths of innocents.  Every second counts.

Walking the walk?
Actively pursuing the threat is dangerous, but is vitally necessary if the mission is actually saving lives, and not just informing the public you wanted to save lives but didn't have the time available to do it.  The bravery, aggression, and speed of operation utilized by well trained and well practiced patrol personnel helps prevent having to admit, "we were there, but the killing just happened too quickly".

Officer safety, speed of entry, and pursuit is greatly enhanced by first responders trained and equipped with modern “close quarter battle” (CQB) type weaponry, including lightweight high-speed portable ballistic shields.  The use of a lightweight and short-stocked holographic sighted long-gun, such as the M-4, used in conjunction with a Baker Batshield®  is an ideal balance of speed and officer safety.

Modern protective equipment allows an officer the option to quickly and silently move through “fatal funnels”, including: entranceways, hallways, windows, and doors.  Moving past wounded and/or panicked individuals is safer and the ultimate application of accurate gunfire to neutralize a threat within a crowded public setting is the final consideration to assure mission success.
Learning from the mistakes and successes of others
History permanently records the details of each massacre including the name of the killer, the responding agency, what happened, and the total body count of the dead and wounded.

Law enforcement leaders who want to improve the delivery of public safety to their citizens can learn from the mistakes and successes of those agencies who responded to a mass murder event.  So-called “peer review” evaluates and grades each situation by the circumstances including the amount of lives lost and saved after arrival of law enforcement personnel.

Whether you are approaching armed and hostile threats before or during active killing, remember that the lives of your citizens are worth a good fight, and that they hired you to protect them.  Make sure that you and your agency are up to the task.

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