SHOT Show 2016: How active shooter attacks are evolving (and how cops can prepare)

Events of the past year have put some new twists on the active shooter problem

The SHOT Show Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) offers law enforcement attendees the opportunity to learn more about hot topics from some of the industry's top experts. This experience and knowledge is especially evident when instructors from the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) take the stage. In an effort to share this vital information with you, I'll be reporting on several of these seminars as part of our comprehensive coverage of SHOT 2016 on Police1.

The first LEEP session of SHOT was kicked off Tuesday morning by NTOA's Patrol Section Chairman, Don Alwes. Don spoke about the threat of active shooters, examining the characteristics of these killers and events, and the history of law enforcement response to them. He discussed the key challenges of reacting to these attacks and suggested suitable tactics for law enforcement to use when confronted by them.

Some of you may remember my previous debrief of Don's outstanding class from last year.  Those lessons are as suitable and important today as they were a year ago, but the events of the past year have put some new twists on the active shooter problem that are worth discussing.  

The first thing to note is the widespread proliferation of these kinds of attacks. Don chronicled the details of over 60 active shooter attacks which occurred during the last 12 months between SHOT Shows, noting that he didn't even try to account for the large number of attacks occurring in locations like Israel and the Arab nations of the Mideast region, because they were too numerous to track.  Make no mistake about it—terrorists and criminals have been paying attention, and have discovered the "tactical economy" of these kinds of attacks. They require little in the way of resources, weapons, training, personnel or preparation, but they offer the potential for large body counts and the absolute guarantee of extensive media attention. These attacks are simple, yet effective, so they are becoming increasingly popular.

Attacks Are Evolving
Even more troubling than the apparent increase in these attacks is the fact that they are evolving into more complex and dangerous attacks, on average.  Studies conducted by the FBI and the Texas State University, San Marcos, just a handful of years ago, indicated that almost 98% of active shooter events were carried out by a single attacker.  However, the experience of 2015 indicates that an increasing number of attacks are being carried out by teams of people, such as the November attacks in Paris, France (7 to 9 attackers) and the December attack in San Bernardino, California (2 attackers). In addition to an increased frequency of multiple player attacks, we're starting to see an increasing sophistication in the weapons and tactics used by the attackers, as well. Looking at the November 2015 Paris attacks again, we see that the attackers took advantage of the confusion they created by striking multiple locations and staying mobile. We also see that they were armed with reliable TATP-based explosive devices—a feat which requires a certain amount of skill and expertise beyond that of the layman.  Even the relatively unsophisticated San Bernardino attackers had homemade explosive devices in their arsenal, and were savvy enough to use hit-and-run tactics that allowed them to reap havoc and escape shortly thereafter.

In the wake of increasingly numerous and sophisticated active shooter events, Don advised that law enforcement officers need to ensure they are well trained in the latest tactics for responding to an attack. Too many agencies are still trapped in the mindset of a decade ago, when it was believed that the best response was to delay entry into an active shooter environment until a hasty, four-man team could be assembled to conduct the sweep.  The delays inherent with forming these teams provide active shooters with more time to inflict casualties and more time to harden their defenses against police counter-assault. Instead, it is preferable for the first one or two officers on scene to move to contact as quickly as possible, to interrupt the killers' actions and plans. It should be noted here that in roughly 65% of active shooter attacks stopped by police intervention, the attacks were stopped by a single officer.

A Collaborative Effort
Likewise, Don urged law enforcement agencies to ensure that their partners in combatting active shooters are well prepared also.  Fire/EMS personnel need to be trained to work alongside law enforcement, and integrated into Rescue Task Force teams that enter the scene before the active shooter is shut down. Casualty Collection Points need to be established in so-called "Warm Zones" that are secured by law enforcement within the confines of the battlezone, so that lifesaving treatment is not delayed too long while Fire/EMS waits outside for a fully secure scene before entry.  

Similarly, law enforcement agencies need to ensure that the public is prepared to play an active role in their defense as well. They need to be encouraged to remain watchful for threats and conscious of security measures. They need to be taught how to respond in an active shooter situation and how to provide LE with the valuable intelligence needed to end the threat. Law enforcement agencies also need to encourage law abiding and responsible citizens to prepare for the possibility that they may have to use force, including lethal force, in their own defense. Although Don did not address it, the lawful carriage of self defense weapons by responsible citizens should be encouraged by LE, rather than actively discouraged (or hindered, as it shamefully was by California law enforcement agencies that supported a ban on lawfully-permitted carry on school campuses last year).

We should expect an increasing number of these deadly and increasingly complex attacks as we forge ahead into 2016.  Now is the time for officers and agencies to prepare themselves, their fellow first responders, and their communities for these expected dangers. I thank Don and NTOA for their outstanding efforts in this regard.

To learn more about other NTOA-sponsored training, please visit

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