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What police departments can learn from the San Bernardino terror attack

Patrol officers need to be suitably prepared, trained and equipped to deal with terrorist attacks


An investigator looks at a Black SUV that was involved in a police shootout with suspects, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, in San Bernardino, Calif. A heavily armed man and woman opened fire Wednesday on a holiday banquet, killing multiple people and seriously wounding others in a precision assault, authorities said. Hours later, they died in a shootout with police.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

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In December 2015, a husband and wife team of terrorists attacked a Christmas party for their fellow county workers in San Bernardino, California, ending any doubt that the “Global War on Terror” had reached American shores. At the 2016 National Tactical Officers Association conference, Lieutenant Travis Walker, formerly of the San Bernardino Police Department, debriefed the audience about the attack and the police response, providing invaluable insight.

1. It can happen to you

Nobody on SBPD thought their city would be the focus of an attack. They always expected the possibility of providing mutual aid to nearby Los Angeles, but didn’t expect to be the target. No city, regardless of size, location or demographics, is immune to terrorism.

2. Focus on patrol

Patrol officers will be the first forces to arrive on scene. They need to be suitably prepared, trained and equipped to deal with terrorist attacks. Officers need to understand active shooter tactics, how to deal with IED threats, learn the basics of casualty care and triage and how to apply communications discipline during major incidents. Officers need to be equipped with patrol rifles and suitable trauma kits. They need to understand what’s expected of them before SWAT arrives.

3. Joint training is critical

Patrol needs to train with SWAT, and SWAT needs to train with teams from nearby agencies. Fire and EMS also need to train with law enforcement. Fortunately, SBPD was both progressive and aggressive in this area.

4. Use dedicated simunition guns

The SBPD SWAT team was actively training at the time of the attack, and “a lot of time and energy” was spent reconverting their duty weapons back to live ammo capability while responding to the scene. Nobody wanted to engage the terrorists with a non-lethal training ammunition barrel or magazine in place, so multiple inspections were performed.

This robbed the team of precious time they could have spent on other preparations and duties as they responded to the call. The team has since purchased dedicated simunition guns and will no longer convert duty weapons to non-lethal training aids. This offers safety advantages in addition to efficiency.

5. Communications discipline

Officers hopelessly jammed radio channels with unnecessary, low priority calls (particularly when self-deployers advised dispatch they were responding), blocking the transmission of vital information. A lack of situational awareness added to the burden when officers from an agency that shared the channel initiated and broadcast a stolen vehicle pursuit. Officers monopolized the frequency with unorganized, lengthy transmissions. Basic radio discipline is especially critical in a major incident like this.

6. Beware of training scars

All of SBPD’s prior active shooter training scenarios assumed that the shooters would still be on scene when the police arrived. In this attack, they were already gone, and it was difficult for some personnel to make the mental switch from search mode to rescue mode when the attackers were not found. To help train this mental flexibility, SBPD is modifying some of their training scenarios to include this possibility.

7. Tactical medicine

Proper training and equipment for casualty care cannot be stressed highly enough. The tactical medic embedded with SWAT was immediately stripped away to deal with a massive number of citizen casualties and was unavailable to support the team. It is important to not become reliant upon them during a real attack. Many of the wounded were so slippery from blood and water that responders couldn’t get a good grip on them, and they were accidentally dropped. Officers must consider having litters or straps available for evacuating them or use improvised means.

8. Casualty collection point security

Consider the possibility that the casualty collection point could become a secondary target when choosing the location and setting up the area. Take advantage of the added protection afforded by large fire-rescue vehicles, and dedicate officers to securing and protecting the operation.

9. Sensory overload

Responders were overwhelmed by the combination of sights, sounds, smells and emotions. Gunsmoke, fire alarms, wailing wounded, flooding, mild electrocution, blood and a number of other assaults on the senses made it difficult to focus and communicate. Prepare officers to deal with these distractions with realistic training and mental preparation.

10. Breaching issues

Education efforts that teach potential victims to lockdown and barricade, combined with enhanced security measures like key-card electronic locks, create a significant burden for responders trying to clear a building. Over 100 doors had to be breached in this attack, and SBPD went through six different breachers due to exhaustion. Clearing the building was exceptionally time and resource consuming. Officers must consider adding mobile breaching tools and equipment and develop plans for first responders to get access to master key cards.

11. Self deployers

Personnel accountability at a major scene is impossible without strict discipline and controls. Self deployers confused the situation, jammed communications, added to the blue-on-blue risk and sometimes left important positions unsecured. Protocols for checking in with a command post should be established, taught and followed so scene commanders understand resources and coverage.

12. Parking discipline

The scene was so littered with abandoned emergency vehicles that critical assets (e.g. ambulances, Bearcats) couldn’t get through. Some vehicles had to be rammed to clear a path. Officers must use good discipline and awareness when parking.

13. Incident command system

Efficient management of a major scene requires leaders who are well trained and experienced with the ICS. Key leaders should stay current in these perishable skills via frequent exercises. The authority of the incident and tactical commanders should be respected by the chain of command.

14. No standard response

Each incident is unique, and no standard response is available. Officers and leaders need to be flexible, creative and skilled thinkers to handle these unpredictable events. Train and prepare accordingly.

I’d like to thank SBPD, and particularly Lieutenant Travis Walker, for sharing his invaluable expertise and experience with the law enforcement community.

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.