Plainclothes officers and active shooter response


By Guest Police1 Columnist Kurt Levins, Sr.

While the shooting incident that occurred on the Virginia Tech campus was a tragedy, we must look at it to see what we, as law enforcement, can learn from such an incident. Certainly one idea that it reinforces is that every officer in every jurisdiction in this country must be trained in responding to an active shooter.

Specifically they must be trained in how to form a rapid deployment force, then locate and eliminate the threat as quickly as possible. In a shooting situation there will always be enormous pressure to get into the school, nursery, church or whatever as soon as possible. And yes, that is the primary aim of rapid response. However, officers in plainclothes must resist the impulse, which I understand can be overwhelming, to take part in a rapid deployment team.

The team is set up for responding officers to go in as soon as possible. In many jurisdictions in this country this means that there are going to be members of multiple jurisdictions and agencies on a single team. The plainclothes officer can not take the chance that they may be mistaken for the active shooter by an officer who does not recognize them.

A plainclothes officer entering an active shooting zone may also be identified, by the public or victims fleeing from the scene, as a shooter. Can you imagine giving a sniper a description you just got from a wounded hostage that was just extricated, only to later find out it was really a plainclothes officer that they saw? The last thing you need is friendly fire in such a situation. You also simply do not need incorrect intelligence to guide command decisions.

So what is the plainclothes officer supposed to do? Stand around doing nothing?

Absolutely not. There are many assignments the plainclothes officer can assume.

First, they can maintain cover for the rapid response force as they enter the targeted building. When doing any assignment near the scene, it is best if the plainclothes officer is teamed with a uniformed officer to reduce any confusion about identity. The plainclothes officer should put on an article of clothing that clearly designates them as POLICE as soon as possible. I am a stickler on this. No other word than “police” should be used. Not FBI, ATF, Sheriff, or Trooper. Only POLICE. “Police” is almost universally recognized and in our rapidly changing society, it remains understandable to people regardless of what language they speak.

I was involved in one incident where a department’s negotiators all showed up with nice windbreakers with the words “Crisis Negotiator” on the back. It took the media about 5 minutes to see this and report that “Crisis Negotiators” were on the scene. The target was watching TV and listening to the radio and then demanded to speak to the “Head Negotiator.” Though this was a slight blip, it was a blip we did not need to overcome.

As victims/witnesses leave the fire zone whether by police action on their own, they must be safely escorted to a staging area and immediately debriefed, unless it is medically unfeasible. Here is where the investigators expertise should come in.

Identify everyone as best as possible. This may be hard with small children who know little more than their names, but do the best you can without further traumatizing the person. You’re going to need to get children to their parents as soon as possible. Positive identification is a must. Get descriptions, locations as much information as possible. Then be sure it doesn’t sit in your notebook. It must immediately be transferred to the Command Structure.

Here is a tip that just about anyone can figure out if you give it some thought:

Question: Who is the single best witness you need to get hold off as soon as they leave the shooting area? (I don’t want teachers or principals, I want the person who knows everything and more importantly has the keys to everything.)

Answer: The janitor. Secure the janitor and treat them like gold.

Remember that as soon as a report of an active shooter in any setting is received by the media, they are going to descend on the scene like the Mongols hitting Europe. You are also going to have parents responding. Plainclothes officers can be deployed in dealing with these situations. Remember, you must have a plan for dealing with the media and parents and have it in place before an incident ever occurs.

If you have wounded victims that have been transported to medical centers, plainclothes officers should be dispatched to interview them as soon and as thoroughly as medically reasonable.

Yes, there are many roles in an active shooter scenario that the plainclothes officer can safely perform. But just like any other skill needed curing a critical incident, they must be planned and practiced before hand. Once the first shot is fired, the planning stage is over and it is all about reacting and reducing casualties.

More on the VA Tech Active Shooter Incident

About the author:

Kurt Levins Sr. served 28 years as a law enforcement officer and retired as a sergeant with the Camden County (N.J.) Prosecutor's Office. Most of his service was in intelligence, narcotics and organized crime. He received extensive training in crisis negotiation and tactical operations. A former member of the policy board of the MAGLOCLEN RISS Project, he’s proud that most of his survival experience came on the streets of Camden, NJ -- “the most dangerous city in America.”

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