Street Survival: How to stop the active shooter
Active shooters go through many stages of preparation that afford the opportunity for their plans to be thwarted by both law enforcement and the community
This article is part of a series by Lt. Dan Marcou. Click here to access all of Dan’s street survival lessons.
In recognition of the release of “Street Survival II: Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” I am writing a series of articles on street survival designed to turn the tables on the current generation of cop-killing criminals. In this series I will share the tactics I acquired during a career dedicated not only to ensuring my own personal survival, but assisting other officers in their quest to survive as well.
A recent epidemic of active shooter events has brought to the forefront the need not only for police officers but also mental health professionals, judges, schoolteachers, gun dealers, attorneys and citizens to be aware of the critical role they can play in preventing such events. I am convinced most are preventable.
I also believe casualties can be minimized if one person effectively intervenes immediately the moment the killing commences. I trained many officers to prepare for their moment when to save lives they may have to risk their own life by “riding to the sound of the guns.”
The five phases of the active shooter in action
Because of personal/professional experiences with active shooters, I became involved in developing tactics in the 1980s for responding to what I called back then “in-progress killing,” now known as an active shooter.
My experiences and research convinced me these killers generally progress through five phases, and that many killings can be prevented if effective action is taken during the first four phases.
I shared this prevention/response protocol nationally in my first article for Police1 in 2007, which was recently revised. Now, in “Street Survival II: Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” I added a chapter on the prevention of/response to the “active shooter/killer.”
Back then, I described the five phases of the active shooter. Here is a recap of those phases with some current-day examples of prevention in action:
1. Fantasy phase
During this phase, the wannabe active shooter is prone to writing, drawing and posting evidence of their fantasy privately in a notebook or diary, or publicly to social media. Lives can be saved during this phase by simply believing what these individuals say or write and acting on it by aggressively investigating these potential killers. Arrests and psychiatric holds on these dangerous individuals save lives.
2. Planning phase
During the planning phase, the potential killer will secretly document specifically who, what when, where, how and why they will kill. Whether you find the plan on a hard drive or hard copy before the event, this discovery can potentially open a legal path that can thwart the plan.
An initial responding officer receiving any early complaint must make every effort to establish probable cause to obtain a search warrant to look for their writings and instruments of death. During the search, you may find a “manifesto” as did officers recently in some thwarted plans around the country.
In August 2019 alone:
- A Las Vegas man was charged with allegedly planning to attack a synagogue.
- In Connecticut, a man who posted an interest in a mass shooting on social media was arrested and found to be in possession of body armor and weapons to carry it out.
- In Ohio, a man was taken into custody before he could act on his hate-filled postings and weapons were taken as evidence.
- In Florida, a man who posted he wanted to “break a world record” was stopped before he did. His rifle and 400 rounds of ammunition showed he was capable of getting the “100 kills” that he thought “would be nice.”
Some of these individuals had passed into the preparation phase.
3. Preparation phase
After forming the plan, the killer will buy, borrow, or steal the instruments needed to facilitate mass murder. They may commit burglaries to get guns and ammunition. They may educate themselves in explosives via the internet, purchase bomb-making materials and assemble explosive devices. Any of these endeavors may lead to an early report to police of these suspicious activities.
Additionally, the suspect in most cases will visit the intended killing scene to gather intelligence as he finalizes the plan. The preparation phase is an opportunity for a family member, citizen, mental health professional, business owner, or police officer to take notice of the suspicious accumulation of information, weapons, ammunition and equipment. A thorough follow up by a motivated police professional after a “tip” can save lives.
When the “tip” is received in advance, it can’t go unheeded as it did in the Parkland school shooting. As then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated, referring to the Parkland school shooting, we “must do better.”
4. Approach phase
This phase affords an opportunity for an alert citizen or police officer to observe someone dressed for combat approaching a school, hospital, mall, theatre, or church carrying a weapon, or weapons. If the citizen calls 911, or officers spot the suspect, the would-be killer can be stopped before reaching his target.
The “Terry stop” is an invaluable tool for the proactive police officer to prevent all kinds of crimes, including the active shooter. Administrators prohibiting/discouraging this police activity are being grossly negligent in their responsibility to protect the public and are unworthy of the identifier “public servant.”
Particular attention should be given to potential targets on important anniversary dates such as April 19 (Columbine), April 20 (Hitler’s birthday) and September 11. Beat officers should consider increasing stops around schools, government buildings, malls and other potential targets. Officers can stop for legitimate traffic violations, such as missing taillights or brake lights, cracked windshields, or a failure to signal turns to increase the odds of coming across a killer on his/her approach.
It is important to point out that this is a very dangerous time to interdict one of these killers because they will be goal-oriented and armed. This was made evident when a traffic stop made by two officers on August 31, 2019, in Texas turned into a mobile active shooter event. During this pursuit/rampage, the killer ended the lives of 7 and wounded 21 before officers were able to ram the vehicle he was in and shoot him dead.
5. Implementation phase
Even though many of these incidents can be prevented with extreme vigilance, during the fantasy, planning, preparation and approach phases, there will still be those killers who will be able to put their dastardly plan into motion.
Regardless of motivations, once they start shooting, stabbing, driving into the crowd, or setting off their explosives, these killers all seem to be going for a top score. What is needed is an immediate, effective, efficient act of courage since seconds lost equal lives lost. An honorable gunfighter needs to intervene directly and immediately.
Never was the need for speed shown more emphatically than in Dayton, Ohio, on August 19, 2019, when a heavily armed shooter opened fire. Courageous officers responded at a run arriving on scene and engaging the killer in just 32 seconds. They shot him dead before he could enter a crowded night club and cause unimaginable carnage. In spite of the immediate response of 32 seconds, nine people were killed.
When fleeing is not an option, and police are not present, armed and unarmed citizens have thwarted many a killer by initiating an immediate, aggressive reaction. They have saved lives because they refused to go “quietly into that good night.”
In Wisconsin, unarmed principal John Klang succeeded in disarming and holding down a would-be killer who entered his school. Klang managed to do this even though he was shot. Principal Klang died from his wounds but because of his actions, none of his students were harmed.
It is becoming more and more likely that whether on-duty, off-duty or retired, you may be the first honorable gunfighter to arrive at the scene of an in-progress active shooter event. You may have to answer the ultimate question facing every initial responding officer when confronted by such a daunting task, “Do I wait for back-up or do I advance alone?” Even though I am retired, to this day I know what I will do, when faced with that decision. Do you?
You must prepare mentally, physically and tactically for that moment in your future when fate allows you to save lives by aggressively investigating a “tip,” or when multiple murders are already in progress, by choosing to ride to the sound of the guns.