Reflecting on a year since Uvalde: Improving incident response and school safety
Law enforcement must continue to keep these low-frequency, high-consequence events at the forefront of their training
By Police1 Staff
The Uvalde school shooting left many questions in its wake, especially concerning the efficacy of the law enforcement response to the tragedy. Discussion following the event emphasized the need to revisit and recalibrate our law enforcement agencies' readiness to respond to such threats, not only in terms of tactical training but also in how they collaborate with school officers and mental health providers on threat assessment teams.
A year on, we asked Police1 columnists and contributors to share their opinions on priorities for law enforcement agencies when assessing their school shooting response training, as well as collaborations with school officers and mental health providers on threat assessment teams.
Addressing accessibility, equipping officers
The issue some agencies have seen in their response to school shootings is accessibility. Some shooters have even taken chains and padlocks to slow or to attempt to exclude officers such as at Virginia Tech. Uvalde also had access issues. I have seen one other recent school shooting where officers could not enter a second-floor door where the shooter was located, and had to retreat downstairs and enter through another door. These officers were the ones to confront the shooter according to media-published information and video. Many school doors are designed to resist fire, and some are security-rated doors, which are hard to defeat. Many patrol officers do not have the tools to breach such doors.
We, like many agencies, have metal keys and electronic key fobs to access the local schools, do periodic walk-through assessments, and have maps of the layout of the facilities. As a small agency, one officer, perhaps two, are likely to respond. Backup officers are usually 10-15 minutes away. With accessibility potentially an issue, the following steps were taken.
Officers were instructed in solo response to active aggressive behavior in which deadly force was likely to be needed. Each officer has keys and a key fob for access to the local schools but in addition, each officer was equipped with a quick sling bag that carries a short-barreled pistol grip breaching shotgun, pry bar, bolt cutters, hammer, glass breaking tool, tactical gloves, door stops and parachute cord with clips to keep doors open, duct tape, four spare rifle magazines, and six throw bags (battle dressing, tourniquet, and instructions). The bag is back-slung to allow the operation of an M4-type carbine with optics and a flashlight, while it can be forward-slung to allow access to tools. By selecting functional tools that were light, the bag is light, weighing roughly 15 pounds.
Officers practice with this equipment and each officer keeps this equipment in their patrol vehicle. Officers, if they have time to don, are also equipped with rifle plate vests, ballistic helmets, thermal monoculars and ballistic shields. Officers carry their own IFAK.
To further assist once threats have been eliminated, officers have completed the TacMed Essentials program for operators with some officers EMTs/paramedics. They can assist with immediate care and triage. Officers train with local EMS and fire service personnel for active aggressive events and mass casualty events.
One must be able to quickly enter and effectively neutralize or at least isolate any threats during such incidents. During my career, I have been involved where two near-miss school shootings were prevented along with the prevention of several school bombings. Centralized reporting with good communication with students, faculty and staff, while engendering trust allowed information to be gathered to preclude these events. Law enforcement must continue to keep these low-frequency, high-consequence events at the forefront of training.
— Colonel Jim Smith, public safety director, Cottonwood Police Department, Alabama
incident command is key to effective response
In our evolving understanding of school attack events, three things stand out:
- No predictive profile of an attacker has developed
- Every event is unique
- Establishing command and communication on the scene of a school shooting is the most frequent shortcoming.
While threat assessment attempts to address predicting bad actors, and an all-hazards approach can prepare for the widest possible disasters including criminal attacks, the most solvable problem is in the area of command and communication.
While I am no apologist for Uvalde, those who have been involved in sudden disasters whether a school shooting, massive Interstate crash pile-up, or an industrial explosion must acknowledge that chaos is the immediate enemy. Can we truly prepare for chaos? What elements are most predictable?
A massive response from first responders is likely. Even in my rural area, I would expect every off-duty officer who hears about a major event will self-deploy whether properly equipped or not. Agencies that we might never have trained with or connected formally or informally with will offer assistance. In my area we have deputies and troopers, but also wildlife officers, park rangers, federal officers working our parks and federal lands, and maybe even the railroad police.
Police leaders must reach outside of their regular law enforcement and first responder relationships to establish at least minimal expectations for staging and communication. Practicing setting up incident command more frequently can help lubricate the process in the big events. There are many routine events that could use incident command that default to seat-of-the-pants Lone Ranger management. Much of police training fails to incorporate decision-making. We set out a procedure, set up a scenario where officers adhere to the procedure, and score their performance based on the procedure. That works fine if the chaotic event conducts itself according to procedure. (Hint: it won't.) What elements of our response training involve critical thinking along with the rote and well-rehearsed tactics we must master?
Uvalde could have been less of an embarrassment, even if not less tragic, had lines of communication been clearly established and the hundreds of responding heroes been directed with more intentionality.
The actions I hope police leaders took after the Uvalde school shooting
Following another life-taking criminal act that deprived our country of future doctors, students, scientists, farmers, police officers, teachers and other contributing citizens, I like to think that police leaders realized that training, especially command training, needed to improve. Some possibilities are listed here.
Understanding that active shooter response training for front-line officers might not prepare them for command at a dynamic violent scene, leaders will have read and absorbed:
- Charles “Sid” Heal’s book “Sound Doctrine: A Tactical Primer.”
- Cynthia Renaud’s article, The Missing Piece of NIMS: Teaching Incident Commanders How to Function in the Edge of Chaos.
- John Weinstein’s article, Opinion: Implications for Future Active Shooter Response.
- The many active shooter response resources on Police1 and, if I may be so bold, my own article, Learn how to think in a crisis.
Leaders sought out command training for dynamic violent incidents and reviewed the training critically to see if it was just refreshed incident command or if it involved principles for taking control of a fast-moving incident involving an adversary.
Putting egos aside, leaders table-topped theoretical attacks on schools and pondered reasons police might not stop a suspect:
- Were threats not detected until there was a shooting?
- Were people slow to call 911?
- Did 911 immediately advise police?
- When seconds counted, did we take minutes?
- Was the threat inside? Outside? Both?
- Did officers take control quickly?
- Was EMS alerted early, before injuries were confirmed?
- Did communications fail?
- Did commanders understand they faced a time and space competition?
Asking these theoretical questions can help resolve system problems in advance of real situations.
Leaders asked whether active shooter training treats a report of a “person with a gun” near a school the same as an active shooter. If not, why not? They discussed whether they should wait for shots before declaring an emergency, and if every gun threat should be treated as an active shooter until proven otherwise. Did training indicate a cessation in shooting is automatically time for negotiation? Why? Leaders realized training that treats a person with a gun in school differently based on whether he is shooting now, stopped shooting, or is about to shoot, may confuse decision-makers.
Leaders reviewing “contact team” training asked, “Why not flood the hallways with cops, so kids feel safe during an incident, regardless of what the contact team is doing?”
Leaders also tried to develop a common tactical language. For example, they clarified whether “contain” means, “The suspect is locked in a small space with no victims available,” or, “We know where he is, but he has plenty of victims available.”
Acknowledging officers may come under fire approaching an active threat, leaders urged trainers to consult with veteran combat commanders for insights into outdoor infantry maneuvers and ensured front-line officers received this training.
In the past year, I like to think police leaders focused on training to improve their abilities for command in dynamic violent incidents and took great steps toward earning the trust of their communities.
— Mike Regan retired as director of training from the New York State Police and is presently a part-time police officer
We must train our leaders in tactical science principles
While we are doing a fair job training our officers to stop the killing, our training and education challenges remain at the leadership level, especially when confronted with novelty. Over 90% of active shooter incidents involve leadership challenges. Most training courses for supervisors focus on incident command and utilizing checklists. While incident command is imperative, it does not answer any questions, it gives the incident structure.
Further, checklists do not bend to changing circumstances, and they fall short when the incident is unconventional. I have spoken to numerous supervisors involved in active shooter incidents that said their training fell short when they were confronted with a unique tactical problem.
To mitigate leadership challenges, we must train and educate our leaders in tactical science principles. Tactical science is the systematized body of knowledge covering the principles and doctrines associated with tactical operations and emergency responses. These principles provide us with a glimpse of where to look when no answer is apparent. Further, they will help leaders work through the inherent fog and friction in these incidents. Concepts such as tempo, initiative and leverage points should be as familiar to supervisors as incident command. Unfortunately, very few are teaching these principles nationwide.
— Travis Norton is a 20-plus-year veteran with the Oceanside (California) Police Department.
Harden the true target: Our children
It is no secret that America’s schools and other soft targets remain endangered by lone wolf predatory attacks. Most of these attacks are performed by a solitary individual who employed the use of firearms or edged weapons along with forced entry into the targeted school. Sixty-one percent of the 41 school attacks from 2008-2017 employed the use of firearms, while 31% relied on edged weapons.
These predators planned their attacks and waited for that solitary moment when the target weakened through open or unlocked doors allowing immediate entrance and access to children, teachers and other staff with relative ease such as during common exercise events that place the children in the open area of playgrounds. The attacks are typically sudden, and the offenders attack without fear of retaliation from law enforcement or other armed personnel. They enter the school knowing that they will probably die as well.
Most if not all the attackers from 2008-2017 suffered from a mental disorder inflamed by constant bullying at home or within school peer groups. Also, many of these offenders lived in a home consumed by physical and mental abuse and most offenders shared their desire to harm friends or relatives before initiating their deadly assault. Therefore, one must assume that school safety practices must include stringent programs that pursue prosecution of bullying within the home and the schools. During my career, I worked two significant cases within local high schools where bullying and latchkey lifestyles served as the primary motivators leading the perpetrators to pursue violence as the only recourse. Neither offender considered pursuing help from law enforcement prior to acting on their impulse.
Providing schools with heavily armed and highly trained law enforcement personnel does not serve to prevent attacks. It only hardens the target through the imposition of an immediate threat against the predator if that predator actively engages that professional. Also, this action increases the probability that children, teachers and other staff may fall prey to high-velocity rounds penetrating the walls, doors, and windows of the school as the officer unleashes his or her own deadly assault.
My personal approach to this challenge is to move toward hardening the true target, which is our children. All bullying must be dealt with immediately and in accordance with penal code laws. Schools need to incorporate ballistic-resistant safe rooms in every classroom, gym, auditorium, lunchroom, library, etc., as well as in every outside play area. Teachers should be able to securely lock the entrance doors to their classrooms or any other area to thwart intrusion from any means, passcodes, etc. Also, schools should employ a criminal justice professional who possesses the knowledge and expertise to provide risk and threat assessment strategies that will assure the school administration and parents that any possible threat has been addressed and solid prevention strategies have been employed…daily.
Alathari L, et al. (2019.) Protecting America’s Schools, U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence.
Goodson B. (2000.) Parker County Sheriff’s Office Records, personal cases worked involving juvenile offenders against schools.
— Professor Barry Goodson, full-time faculty, Columbia Southern University
Leadership by committee works, until it doesn't
Almost 400 first responders converged on the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde within one hour! During the critical, first hour, no credible command and control/ICS was established to mitigate the dysfunctional menagerie of first responders. In short, law enforcement responded – many who self-deployed while reporting to no one – to Uvalde with the best intentions but without organization, unit cohesion, unity of command, an Immediate Action Plan, objectives and, most important, an incident commander to COMMAND! These same factors have been repeated countless times in exercise scenarios and actual incidents.
Fire/EMS understand the Incident Command System (ICS) and are more proficient than law enforcement when executing ICS. That’s because they possess more reps calling out in multiple, cohesive units (clearly defined and organized strike teams or task forces) versus individual LEOs normally assigned to patrol sectors. Leadership by committee works, until it doesn’t.
Compounding “the fog of battle” and diverging degrees of individual OODA loops in Uvalde was jurisdiction. Who was responsible for incident command? If not addressed beforehand, jurisdictional issues will rear their ugly head and further deteriorate the ability of officers to “shoot, move and communicate” to rapidly end the threat(s).
The Uvalde school police chief admitted that he was not aware he was in charge. Worse, he did not initially have a radio on his person. Could this suggest that since the Uvalde school PD consisted of about six SROs, similar to a small municipal police department, all hands would deploy inside the school, and that IC would be performed by a larger agency or Uvalde PD? Regardless if this assumption was correct or not, we strongly recommended that agencies conduct tabletop drills with all neighboring and supporting agencies (stakeholders). This enables issues such as territory, jurisdiction, resources, equipment, infrastructure, capabilities, perimeters and staging area would be identified to pre-determine who assumes incident command.
Under certain conditions, incident comment may need to transfer to another agency no different than when a patient is transferred from one hospital to a neighboring hospital better equipped to save life. This cohesion requires objectivity, teamwork, communication, coordination, ego checks and mutual respect. Policy should be drafted, edited and signed off by all stakeholders, and then become the official active shooter playbook. If not addressed, our precious, vulnerable children will pay for our failures to protect them!
— Major Richard Kuong USMCR (ret) and Colonel Richard Herrington, USMC (ret), Kilo 1 Applications Group, LLC.
We must ride to the sound of the guns
The police response to the Uvalde incident did nothing but confirm the efficacy of the tactics we have been training officers in to prepare their response to the active shooter for years now. The officers at Uvalde who finally bypassed the command bottleneck there and neutralized the killer were following current training trends.
Many trainers have been heard to say in response to the question, "What have we learned from Uvalde?" The answer was, "Nothing we didn't already know."
The only way to save lives is to follow the old cavalry adage. When in doubt, "RIDE TO THE SOUND OF THE GUNS!"
— Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally recognized police trainer who was a highly decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience.