Rapid Response: Early lessons from the El Paso active shooter attack

In his manifesto, the El Paso killer left some valuable information for law enforcement to consider about his preparation for the attack

On August 3, 2019, a 21-year-old active shooter killed 23 and wounded 26 at a Walmart located near the Cielo Vista Mall in El Paso, Texas. The shooter was arrested by police “without incident” shortly thereafter.

Although the shooting in El Paso happened less than 24 hours ago as this article was being written, and there are many gaps in our understanding and knowledge of the incident, there’s still enough information available to identify some early lessons from the attack.

Response time 

A police officer stands in the doorway to a Walmart where a gunman opened fire in a shopping complex Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.
A police officer stands in the doorway to a Walmart where a gunman opened fire in a shopping complex Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

It’s been reported that the first 911 call was received at 1039, and law enforcement was on the scene by 1045. The suspect was in custody 21 minutes later, at 1106. This is a strong response from the El Paso law enforcement community, and they deserve credit for what they accomplished.

Bureau of Justice statistics indicate only 30% of calls for service are answered within 5 minutes, so a 6-minute response time is probably much better than the national average. Unfortunately though, the attacker was able to kill 20 and wound 26 in those 6 minutes, illustrating the fact that no matter how fast the police respond (and there will always be some kind of delay), the public must be able to evacuate, protect and sustain themselves until the arrival of professional help.

It’s imperative that public safety officials embrace their role in preparing the public for the terrible interval between the first report of an active shooter and the arrival of police, fire and EMS. FBI statistics indicate that 70% of active shooter attacks are over within 5 minutes, which is well inside the response time of most law enforcement agencies, so we must focus more of our effort on third-generation active shooter response – getting the public ready to fend for themselves.

Interagency coordination

Video from the scene shows that a variety of public safety agencies responded to the attack, with U.S. Border Patrol, Texas Department of Public Safety and other personnel assisting the El Paso Police Department. Given that the Walmart had an estimated 3,000 patrons and employees on property at the time of the attack, and was adjacent to a shopping mall that contained many times that number, the additional manpower was vital to response and recovery operations.

There are few – if any – agencies in America that could provide enough personnel to adequately staff a scene like this, so it’s vital for agencies to have a robust mutual aid plan, and to ACTIVELY train with their neighbors. This includes cross-service training with fire and EMS! If your agency’s active shooter or mass casualty incident (MCI) training doesn’t include personnel from fire, EMS and law enforcement partners EVERY TIME, then you will not be adequately prepared for real-world joint operations.

The manifesto

It has become more commonplace for killers to leave a “manifesto” behind for public consumption following their attacks, and the El Paso killer followed the recent trend by posting his to a social media website prior to the attack.

These manifestos serve multiple purposes. In one sense, they allow the killer to influence how the media and the public will perceive and portray them, which gives them some control over crafting their legacy. Additionally, they provide a vehicle for the killer to spread their hateful and twisted message to a wider audience, and potentially recruit new people to their cause.

Law enforcement agencies should be especially sensitive to this manipulation, and should ensure their personnel are trained to communicate facts without indulging the ego of the killer, elevating their status, or spreading their message. For instance, the killer’s name and image should not be used in press conferences because it promotes the fame and recognition that the killer desires. Similarly, commentary on the killer’s manifesto ramblings should be avoided, because it helps to disseminate their message and attract others to it. Likewise, law enforcement leaders should refrain from making comments that exaggerate the danger or effect of the killer and his weapons, because this will only assist in promoting the terror that the attacker sought to create, and enhancing his image – which will, in turn, make him a more attractive symbol or role model for others with similar plans and thoughts.

It’s instructive that the El Paso killer referenced the Christchurch, New Zealand, killer and his manifesto, just as the Christchurch killer made references in his own manifesto to the killer from the earlier attacks in Norway. A similar situation occurred in the Poway, California, synagogue attack, where the killer there referenced the Christchurch killer and the killer from the synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We cannot underestimate the recruiting value of these statements, and must be extremely careful to avoid helping the killers advance their cause, and become celebrities by focusing too much attention on them.

The killer’s training and equipment

In his manifesto, the El Paso killer left some valuable information for us to consider about his preparation for the attack.

To begin with, the killer displayed a more enhanced knowledge about firearms and ammunition than we’ve seen from some other active shooters. He discussed the selection of ammunition that would have the greatest terminal effect in his rifle, and even took the time to debate the merits of other firearm and ammunition combinations. The killer also described how his rifle became heated with high volume, rapid fire and discussed the need to wear a protective glove to avoid injury and wield the weapon with greater efficiency.

These statements give us a clue that this killer was better prepared to use his weapon than some others have been (such as the YouTube active shooter), and serve as a reminder to law enforcement that we cannot assume anything about an active shooter’s training and equipment. Some active killers will be relatively unskilled and unsophisticated, and will be armed with inferior weapons, but there will also be others on the opposite end of the spectrum, and at all points in between. Treat every opponent with respect, and choose your tactics wisely.

It’s also notable that the El Paso killer chose an AK-pattern rifle for his attack, in contravention to the recent trend of AR-platform guns for those killers who chose long guns. The AR-pattern gun is simply more commonplace in America, so it’s seen more often in these crimes than the AK, but it’s interesting to note that the killer at the Gilroy Garlic Festival – just a week before – used the same make of gun. Given that the “copycat effect” is strong in active shooter attacks, it’s possible that the current killer could have been influenced by those before him in his selection of equipment, as we’ve seen so many times before. This is important for law enforcement to keep in mind, particularly when they’re asked to publicly comment on the tactics and equipment used by a killer – there’s no sense in providing valuable intelligence about what worked and what did not to the next attacker, so avoid discussing details that are unnecessary for public consideration.

Since the AR-pattern rifle is the de facto standard in American law enforcement, and few officers receive training in other systems, it’s a good idea for agencies to consider adding some familiarization training to their program. Do you, or the officers on your department know how to operate an AK-pattern rifle? If not, this is easily fixed with a quick video or practical demonstration during a pre-shift briefing – it doesn’t take much effort, but could help to avoid an unnecessary tragedy. Similarly, do you understand how the terminal ballistics of a 7.62x39mm round differ from cartridges like your patrol rifle’s 5.56x45mm, and what might constitute effective cover against this cartridge? Again, it wouldn’t take much effort to review this in a hasty, pre-shift briefing, but the knowledge could prove vital to your survival if you encountered a suspect armed with an AK-pattern rifle.

One last equipment-related item is worth noting from El Paso –  the killer wore hearing protection during the attack, which is quite unusual. We don’t know why, but we can speculate that he wanted to preserve his hearing for tactical reasons, to make himself more effective when the police arrived. Here, it’s possible that the El Paso killer took his cue from the Virginia Beach killer, who used a suppressor during the attack on the city government building, which conceivably gave him a tactical advantage by preserving a vital sense.

Once again, we’re reminded that active killers are often good students of past attacks, and incorporate the “lessons learned,” just as we do, to improve performance.

Active shooter training scars

The El Paso killer shot several victims outside the Walmart prior to entering the building and shooting more. Had chance and circumstances been slightly different, the responding officers may have interrupted the shooter’s attack in the parking lot, which is a much different environment than many officers train for.

In many agencies, the thrust of active shooter training is focused exclusively on indoor scenarios, where officers have to enter and clear a building, as they hunt down the killer. This is certainly an important skillset to develop, but agencies must ensure that they include outdoor scenarios in their training and preparations as well, since a significant percentage of active shooter attacks (14% in a US Secret Service study of attacks in 2018, with other studies indicating potentially higher numbers) occur outdoors.

If your agency’s active shooter training always focuses on indoor scenarios, that’s a potential training scar that could impact your success in real life. A parking lot offers different tactical realities and restrictions than a school building, and you need to be ready to operate in each to end the active killer threat.

Be ready

The attack in El Paso was just hours old when another active shooter attack occurred in Dayton, Ohio. One lesson that reigns supreme about the El Paso and Dayton attacks is that they won’t be the last. Neither of these communities expected to be the site of the next MCI, and your community is probably the same. As public safety professionals, it’s up to us to recognize that the danger is real, and the time to prepare for it is NOW. You can never be too ready for an attack like this, so stay sharp, train hard and God bless you all.

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