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What can we learn from the Navy Yard attack?

The attack on Building 197 in the Washington Navy Yard underscores similarities in response for active shooter and terror scenarios, and reinforces the lesson that training should be multi-disciplinary and multi-jurisdictional


PoliceOne Columnist Lance Eldridge was on the periphery of the active shooter incident at the Washington Naval Yard. “They’ve evacuated everyone to one site and have provided some armed protection while they search for the other shooters...” Eldridge said.

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First and foremost, the heroes from DC Metro and the US Park Police — as well as the Fire and EMS personnel — who responded to the active shooter attack in Washington DC today are in our hearts and prayers. Your coordinated response very likely saved lives today. At least one MPD officer was shot in the leg while responding to the shooting — according to reports, doctors say they believe he will be okay.

Our thoughts and prayers also are with the victims of the attack and their families.

Events are still unfolding, and in coming days we’ll know much more than we do at present, but some initial analysis of the day’s events is a worthwhile exercise.

Multi-Disciplinary Training
When news broke this morning of the shooting at Building 197 on the Washington Navy Yard in DC, two thoughts immediately came to mind. The first was “This is Fort Hood all over again.”

Like we saw at Fort Hood, the vast majority of the personnel working at that installation — both uniformed and civilian — are not armed. There is an armed base-protection force on site, of course, but other than that, this is a “gun free” military base (yes, quite an oxymoron).

Soon thereafter, reports surfaced that there were three shooters (one dead, two remaining at large). Naturally, the next thought to come to mind was “This is Mumbai in America.” As I write this, the existence of more than one shooter has been all but dismissed.

Still, we must be mindful that individuals and/or groups with “big agendas and little money” can use small arms to inflict significant loss of life.

From what we saw today, — whether this was one shooter or more, whether this was a terrorist attack or an active shooter crime — the response was pretty highly-coordinated, certainly multi-disciplinary, and obviously multi-jurisdictional. From afar, at least, the response today appeared to be all of those things.

While I cannot speak to the specific role of either fire or EMS, we do know that upon arrival, officers from both DC Metro and U.S. Park Police assembled ad hoc “active shooter teams inside the building that engaged the suspect several times,” according to DC Metro PD Chief Cathy Lanier.

In the nation’s capital, such coordination (and a well-rehearsed response) would be expected. But elsewhere in the United States, things can be pretty fragmented.

As we all know, fire, EMS and police routinely converge on the same scene — whether that’s a traffic collision or some other “regular” call — but we also all know that there are gaps in training for all disciplines to work together in a coordinated fashion during a major attack.

This requires public safety responders to not just train together, but in some cases, even cross-train in each other’s disciplines. We know that cops will have to be able to operate in tactical environments that are ablaze, and firefighters (and EMTs) may have to do their jobs in the midst of a running gunfight.

I’ve written extensively on this subject of multi-disciplinary, multi-jurisdictional training — regular readers know this. Know this, too: No matter what rank you hold in your agency, you should ask the question, “How can we be better in this regard?”

An “Armed Military” Response
Circling back to my initial impression this morning about the “gun-free zone” on our military bases, a few parting thoughts. Someone on one of the news networks said today that today’s attack on Building 197 is different from Sandy Hook in that the military base was a “hard target” while the school in Newton was a “soft target.”

Well, both buildings had something in common.

Military installations in the United States are shockingly exposed to armed intruders. Fort Hood, of course, was the site of the most deadly active shooter attack on a military base (up to now). The men and women killed by Nidal Hasan were unarmed.

Even the Pentagon itself — which has arguably the best security of all DoD properties on American soil — was attacked.

My friend and Police1 colleague Dick Fairburn told me today, “The shooting incident at the Navy Yard is following the normal pattern we see in active shooter incidents: confusion, panic, a rush to the scene, and gridlock — including reports of multiple shooters. That is not a criticism of the responding agencies, merely the norm in such circumstances.”

Fairburn also believes — and I agree — that we must presume this is a terror attack until the investigation proves otherwise.

Aaron Alexis — the 34-year-old former Navy electrician’s mate who has been identified as the active shooter who was killed in a running gun battle with the cops who ended the threat he presented — was apparently discharged from the Navy a couple of years ago. He apparently had multiple disciplinary infractions and “a pattern of misconduct.”

It remains to be seen whether that makes him a disgruntled former employee or an aspiring terrorist with some sort of anti-American agenda. What we do know, however, is that he committed the second mass murder on a United States military base (a so-called “hard target”) in less than a half decade.

As Fairburn says, “The Fort Hood attack is still labeled a ‘workplace shooting’ though it was unquestionably a terror attack. How long will we deny our military the right to be armed and able to defend themselves while at home on their bases?”

As it turned out, it was the U.S. Park Police and DC Metro that served as the “armed military” response.

My friend and Police1 colleague Dan Marcou added, “There has been a great deal of talk lately about American law enforcement becoming too militaristic. The attack on the Washington Navy Yard is an example of how our adversaries — whether they be gangsters, members of a drug cartel, active shooters, or jihadists — are becoming increasingly deadly in their attacks.

“Some outside as well as inside law enforcement say we should have an ‘Andy of Mayberry’ philosophy of facing threats with open hand, open heart, and a smile. If we submit to this idea, many of the people we’re sworn to protect will suffer,” Marcou concluded.

And “Lieutenant Dan” is absolutely right.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.