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Tactical response to barricaded gunman and hostage situations

Maintaining your situational awareness will provide good judgment, clear analysis, and proper decisions as you face the tactical challenges of a barricaded gunmen

The “man with a gun” call comes out over the radio and you’re dispatched as the primary unit. All of a sudden you experience a serious adrenaline dump. Instantly, your situational awareness is piqued and your thoughts are clear and focused. The radio chatter picks up as other units volunteer to respond. Supervisors are dispatched and further details are broadcast over the air.

Within the next couple of minutes you may be faced with a gunman wanting to wreak havoc on your tour of duty. As you race to the scene there are many thoughts of what needs to occur as you arrive. As a first responder to a barricaded gunman or a hostage situation you will be responsible for the initial response, which could be a civil litigation nightmare.

We all know that most officers want to resolve matters on their own. We all have that mythical hero dancing in our heads. The reality, however, is that we need to slow down and temper those thoughts of heroism so that we can effectively respond in a tactical manner — we must consider the safety of all involved, and we put the proper strategy in place for our response.

Near-Universal Basics

Responding to a barricaded gunman or a hostage situation requires a tactical approach from the first responder to ensure the safety of all involved. While certain elements of tactical response can vary from agency to agency, there are some basic fundamentals and objectives which are similar in most cases.

A lack of command and control can lead good men into bad decisions. When this happens, officers then have the ability to allow their desire to handle the matters themselves, take over. That desire now drives the decision-making and the tactical response.

This is when the mistakes start to happen.

Don’t allow yourself to fall victim to this type of phenomena. Allow your humility to slow this process slightly — process the information as you receive it. The information in most cases comes fast and furious for the first five minutes. This is the time that most critical incidents and the direction the incident will take are determined.

We all have experienced the command officer who avoids getting involved when calls like these are dispatched. They assume that since they are not involved that it’s not their responsibility. That is not the case and I can assure you command officers out there that you will be the first priority of attack for the defense team in the civil litigation that follows when they discover the lack of command and control.

The reality is (from my experience) that most barricaded gunman and hostage situations result in some type of litigation, no matter how successful an operation was. Therefore, preparation and training are critical when you face the Monday morning quarterbacks.

When a call goes out over the radio to respond to a critical incident a basic understanding of tactical operations and planning will help you provide a proper response and lesson your headaches down the road.

Barricaded Gunman

Although, hostage and barricade incidents have a similar response the resolution tactics are very different. First responders must try to determine if they have a barricaded suspect or a barricaded subject before they formulate a tactical response. A couple factors that the first responder needs to identify immediately are:

  • Is the subject armed?
  • Is the subject believed to have been involved in a crime?
  • Is the subject a significant threat?
  • Is the subject’s position concealed or open?
  • Is the subject suicidal?

It is important to recognize the difference between a barricaded suspect and a barricaded subject. A barricaded suspect is a suspect of a crime that has taken a position in some type of structure, vehicle, or other environment that doesn’t allow police access and who refuses to submit to custody.

A barricaded subject is not suspected of a crime but is need of some other type of police intervention such as a mental commitment. These individuals often suffer mental illness and or suicidal tendencies.

These two types of barricaded gunmen pose various tactical problems and present different levels of police response. A tactical commander of a special response team will have a different response for each.

The barricaded gunman has limited offensive tactical options to use against the first responding officer therefore the response and risks taken by the officer should be limited. Don’t get sucked into thinking a barricaded gunman, that is shooting from inside his stronghold is an active shooter. He may be a danger to himself but as long as the first responder has secured the location and perimeter an immediate response may not be warranted unless he starts to shoot at law enforcement or has access to victims.

To further test your leadership, on many occasions officers have responded to barricaded gunmen, entered the premises, and the officers engage and shoot the subject, only to have an attorney later down the road accuse them of forcing the situation, making them the cause of the problem. This happens far too often and supervisors become gun shy when their decision-making is fogged by thought of civil litigation. Good judgment, and common sense, is an absolute requirement for successful combat leadership.

The tactical commander’s first priority will always be to negotiate first to resolve this type of incident and only make an intervention when all tactical options have been exhausted. This priority should remain the same for the first responder.

Hostage Situations

The hostage situation includes all of the aforementioned elements, with the added responsibility of the welfare of an innocent victim. A hostage is a person held against his or her will by an armed or dangerous subject who has demonstrated his intentions to harm his victim.

To further complicate matters hostage takers typically are troubled and emotionally unstable. These individuals can be very complicated and unpredictable to deal with. The first responder must not let emotion dictate how he or she responds but let sound police tactics drive his decisions as the situation unfolds.

As some officers respond to a hostage situation they often will justify in their minds that this is an active threat requiring an active shooter response. This is a complex decision to make as a first responder with limited intelligence and the desire to quickly save the victim(s).

A common definition of an active shooter is “an armed subject whom has used deadly force on other persons or is inflicting great bodily harm and continues to do so with unrestricted access to additional victims”. The key to the active shooter is if they have stopped killing and the officers can determine that the offender stopped his shooting and has taken a position with a victim then you now have a hostage situation.

Some hostage situations however, may require an immediate response from first responders. History has proven this with incidents in the past were the hostage takers motive was sexual assault and allowing time to pass lead to a mass murder.

The decision to make an intervention as a first responder or uniformed command officer will be the most difficult one in your career in this type of situation. Your intelligence on the situation will be very limited as you ponder your tactical options. The best advice for the first responder in this situation is to remember the priority of life, make a calculated tactical plan providing complete domination of the situation using every possible tactical tool and weapon system available to you. Then exploit your adversary’s weakness and effect your plan with an overwhelming amount of dominating force.

Here are three questions that a first responder must answer before he formulates a tactical plan are:

  1. Does the suspect have a hostage?
  2. Does the suspect indicate by action, words or deed his desire to inflict great bodily harm to the hostage?
  3. Can you reasonably verify that the hostage taker has the ability to carry out his threats?

If the first responder can answer yes to all three of these questions than most likely deadly forced used against the hostage taker would be warranted. Then it’s time to act in the interest of the hostage(s) giving careful consideration to bystanders, remaining mindful of the safety of the officers involved and department policy.

Negotiate

Progressive police agencies are training first responders in tactical negotiator tactics. These negotiators should be dispatched to all critical incidents and as uniformed officers their response will provide an immediate tactical option. In the past two years, my agency alone has dispatched trained tactical negotiators — working in uniform — to more than a dozen critical incidents each year with great success. Many times these negotiators bring a resolution to an incident, at the patrol level before it has time to develop into a barricaded or hostage situation.

Incident Command

The first responder should be trained in Incident Command and must be capable of performing as the incident commander until he or she is relieved. The following are some of the objectives that you must take into consideration as the first responding incident commander. These objectives will help you navigate through a hostage situation or barricaded gunman as a first responder:

  • Conduct an initial response analysis.
  • Determine what resources are needed such as SWAT, K-9, bomb techs, etc.
  • Determine what resources are anticipated to be needed.
  • Be prepared to take immediate action if needed.
  • Designate a staging area for responding units, preferably before they arrive.
  • Establish an inner perimeter and evacuate civilian persons.

If you are faced with an immediate intervention a contact team should be formed under the supervision of the most qualified officer on scene. The objective of the contact team is to locate, neutralize, and apprehend the suspect, preventing the suspect’s access to additional hostages, containing the suspect when possible, and preventing escape.

The initial objectives of the first responder will require a lot of the first incident commander. Most often the incident command will be passed on to a higher-ranking command officer as they arrive. The following objectives will need to be performed by an incident command that can provide his attention not to response but to expanding the incident command concept:

  • Establish outer perimeter.
  • Establish a command post.
  • Identify victims and witnesses.
  • Gather intelligence as needed.
  • Brief SWAT and other units as they arrive.
  • Media control.

Resolution

Many of you have responded to hostage incidents and barricaded gunmen with great success. As you know, maintaining your situational awareness will provide good judgment, clear analysis, and proper decisions as you face your tactical challenges. Don’t fear the decisions you make just respond as a confident warrior ready to battle any man with the intent to harm.

Stay safe.

Glenn French, a retired Sergeant with the Sterling Heights (Mich.) Police Department, has 24 years police experience and served as the Team Commander for the Special Response Team, and supervisor of the Sterling Heights Police Department Training Bureau. He has 16 years SWAT experience and also served as a Sniper Team Leader, REACT Team Leader, and Explosive Breacher.

Contact Glenn French.