Why Orlando SWAT should be praised for the Pulse nightclub response

Many trainers are either forgetting a very important element of active shooter tactical response or are simply unaware of it

In the days following the Orlando terrorist attack law enforcement officials responsible for the tactical response took a lot of criticism that there was a three-hour time delay from the initial 911 call and the initiation of the hostage rescue. Even some cops criticized their response.

A former SWAT team member and police trainer from Texas said, “This was a catastrophic failure on police SWAT tactics.”

I am never surprised by the criticism that comes from civilians after such an event, but law enforcement should know better than to eagerly join the party of prejudgment until the investigation has concluded. I reviewed the criticism from the tactical instructor and others who were quick to point out that an active shooter incident requires an immediate response by law enforcement to end the threat. However, that isn’t the only tactical option.

An Orange County Sheriff's Department SWAT member arrives to the scene of a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016.
An Orange County Sheriff's Department SWAT member arrives to the scene of a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Bringing the killer to ground
During the past decade, police response to active shooters has evolved significantly for the better. Cops are taught to immediately penetrate and engage the shooter(s) whether they are responding solo or in teams. The objective is to push a fight with the shooter and neutralize the threat immediately to save lives. This concept has been taught for years and it has been proven to work.

But many trainers are either forgetting a very important element of a tactical response or are simply unaware of it. This element comes from the early years of SWAT response to terrorism. That is, during an active shooter or terrorist attack one of the first priorities of law enforcement is to “bring to ground” the shooter.

Bringing a suspect to ground simply means that you have forced the suspect to stop the killing and he or she is now barricaded or has committed suicide. This can be achieved by engaging the suspect and ending the threat quickly, but it can also be achieved by isolating the shooter to an area of containment. This is SWAT tactics 101. Some trainers are focused on immediate response and have forgotten to teach this tactical option which ultimately saved lives in Orlando.

When you bring an active shooter to ground, you pushed the shooter to a point where he or she has stopped the aggression and is now focused on defense. Typically, the shooter moves to an isolated place where he or she can defend themselves. When the shooter goes to ground a very important factor kicks in: everything slows down.

Changing circumstances
When the tactical crisis slows down, the SWAT team benefits and everybody is safer. The SWAT team is able to isolate the shooter to one area. They can set up a close proximity containment team, an arrest team and a rescue team for immediate action/response. Once this occurs the SWAT team commander now owns the clock and can dictate the response on his terms.

Once the crisis is contained by bringing the active shooter to ground, it’s now time to establish negotiations. Why would we do this instead of running in and pushing a confrontation? Because we are duty bound as law enforcement officers to save all lives of civilians and provide the safest means possible for responding officers.

Pushing a gunfight doesn’t always mean all hostages will survive. When an active shooter is engaged an immediate gunfight will occur. If this doesn’t occur within the early minutes of the attack, you have to ask yourself if the hostages will benefit from this action. This is a judgment call only the officers at the scene can discern.

Once the negotiations begin, it’s time for the SWAT commanders and team leaders to prepare and rehearse a hostage rescue. This requires time as they gather intelligence on the stronghold, the suspect, weaponry, hostages and the shooter’s background and motives. The tactical plan has to be perfect or the rescue attempt may fail.

At some point either the hostage taker will surrender or negotiations will come to an impasse and hostage rescue will occur.  

The Orlando terrorist attack officers were on scene within two minutes of the initial call. They pushed the shooter into the bathroom and never even saw him. That means the concept of immediately responding to the terrorist attack was successful because the killing stopped. It also means officers successfully brought the terrorist to ground just by their presence inside the club. Could they have entered the bathroom and engaged the terrorist? Perhaps, but innocent lives were at stake and these officers – properly trained in their response – made a judgment call based on information they had at the time.

The negotiations in Orlando started to go south with the terrorist and the decision was made to conduct a hostage rescue. The initial entry attempt into the club failed. The explosive breach was not successful.  The secondary breaching point was cleared with the use of an armored vehicle and its ram created a hole between two bathrooms where the hostages could escape. The terrorist also emerged from that hole and was swiftly neutralized.

Responding to an active shooter is very difficult for uniformed officers. Tough decisions have to be made in an instant and if you make the wrong choice innocent people can die. Bringing the shooter to ground is an option with great advantages and greater chance of success given the right circumstances.

The tactical commanders on scene in Orlando should be commended. Their response was not only textbook, but a great success. 

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