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6 considerations for on- and off-duty active shooter response

There are some critical actions that need to be taken before arriving on the scene to guarantee the greatest chance of success

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Law enforcement personnel from the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office park outside a high school in Italy, Texas, following an active shooter incident at the school Monday morning, Jan. 22, 2018.

Jennifer Lindgren/KTVT Dallas Fort Worth via AP

The PoliceOne Academy is currently featuring Active Shooter: Phases and Prevention, a 1-hour course for law enforcement personnel. This course is designed to provide instruction to law enforcement officers in how to best – and most safely – respond to an active shooter incident. Visit the PoliceOne Academy to learn more and for an online demo.

The Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) at SHOT Show draws officers from all over the world and gives them a unique opportunity to share information and experience with each other on a variety of important topics.

In the wake of several high-profile active shooter events in 2017 – including the horrific attack at the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Music Festival – tactics for confronting these attackers were a primary area of concern for the LEEP attendees.

Fortunately, Eastern Beacon Industries, a manufacturer of tactical bags and cases with integrated ballistic panels that can withstand rifle fire, sponsored Andrew Gonzalez to lead a class on active shooter response tactics for both on-duty and off-duty officers.

Gonzalez is a seasoned gang unit officer from the Los Angeles area with a strong tactical background and a passion to share lessons learned with his fellow officers. Using his intensive experience and training, Gonzalez led a guided discussion about the tactics used to confront active shooters, drawing heavily upon audience participation in a fast-moving session that, at times, highlighted strong differences of opinion on this complex and difficult subject.

Gonzalez outlined six key areas of consideration:

1. The importance of training

Gonzalez noted that we need to break out of our comfort zone when we’re training because it helps to form the basis for our decisions in the field. If we allow our training to become stagnant, routine and unchallenging, we will be unprepared to handle the dynamic and novel situations we encounter in the field. Rigorous, challenging and dynamic training under the supervision of qualified, vetted instructors is essential to guarantee operational success.

2. The importance of preparation

Looking at the San Bernardino attack, the Pulse nightclub attack and the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Music Festival attack, Gonzalez reminded the class that the average time between the first shots fired and the arrival of the first officers on scene was approximately four minutes.

If you find yourself caught in the middle of an active shooter incident as an off- duty officer, you’ll need a plan to get you through those first minutes until help arrives. Similarly, if you’re the first on-duty officer to arrive on scene, you’ll need an effective solo response plan for the period before backup arrives. Work on building that plan now, while you have time.

3. First things first

Using careful questioning to guide the discussion, Gonzalez helped the audience to realize that blindly “rushing to the sound of the guns” was not beneficial.

While officers will understandably want to respond to the scene as quickly as possible when the call comes in, there are some critical actions that need to be taken before arriving on the scene to guarantee the greatest chance of success. For instance, an officer might consider stopping to don improved armor (such as rifle plates), strap on a “go bag” and access/check long guns before continuing the response to the scene. This will improve the officer’s safety and capabilities from the moment he arrives on scene, and will prevent critical equipment from getting left behind in the chaos upon arrival.

4. Communication is vital

The importance of clear and concise communications was highlighted by all participants in the conversation, but Gonzalez challenged the audience to back up the timeline a bit and consider the things they could do to improve communication “left of bang.” For instance, officers and agencies can prepare contingency plans for prime targets that address issues that can be coordinated ahead of time like:

  • Rendezvous points;
  • Primary points of access;
  • Perimeter control positions;
  • Casualty collection points;
  • Helicopter landing zones;
  • Fire-EMS marshalling areas.

Establishing standards for who will request mutual aid and what resources (type, quantity) will be automatically dispatched to an active shooter scene are also worthwhile pursuits.

The goal of all these efforts is to build a shared mental model ahead of time that will decrease the need for nonessential communications during the event and also increase the situational awareness of all participants. Even if a plan has to be modified to meet the tactical requirements of the real life situation, starting from a known baseline will help to reduce errors in communication and understanding, and minimize radio traffic.

5. Establish clear priorities

Responding officers should clearly understand what their priorities are during an active shooter event. Officers on a contact team should understand, for example, that their sole objective is to find the shooter and end the threat, not to aid or evacuate innocents that they encounter after making entry. Similarly, while contact team officers can provide valuable intelligence and information to officers arriving behind them, their first priority must be to find and stop the threat as quickly as possible, and any other task that interferes with this priority must be delayed.

6. Know your tactics

Officers should be trained in a manner that they understand their true capabilities, and already have the answers to tactical problems that they are likely to encounter such as:

  • Should an officer bypass a door without clearing the room if he hears gunfire ahead, down the hall?
  • How close does an officer need to get to ensure they are capable of making a hit on the suspect?
  • Where should a suspect be shot to end the threat in the fastest manner?
  • What should an officer do if he downs a suspect – remain with him, or secure him and continue hunting for the next threat?
  • How should an officer down situation be handled if the shooter still hasn’t been stopped?
  • How would your tactics change if you were off-duty or in plain clothes?

Closing thoughts

It was a bold move for Officer Gonzalez to run this class as he did, acting more as a facilitator of the discussion than a platform instructor, leading the class through a prepared presentation. However, his ability to carefully guide the discussion with probing questions allowed the members of the audience to get much more out of the experience. The officers present had to wrestle with the problem and come up with their own solutions to the problems and curveballs that Gonzalez presented, which is exactly what they would have to do at the scene of an active shooter.

In this sense, they got a two-for-one deal out of the training: Access to the combined experience of a diverse crowd of officers, and the experience of a problem-solving exercise that got them working on that plan that Gonzalez talked about early in the session.

What’s your plan for an active shooter callout? If you don’t have one, there’s no better time than the present to start working on it. Talk it over with your fellow officers, and get to work.

Be safe out there!

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 RevolverGuy.com, 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.
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