Patrol response to active shooter and terrorist incidents

Editor’s Note: September 11, 2001 was the deadliest day in U.S. law enforcement history — 72 police officers lost their lives that terrible day. The sadness and the anger remain raw. To mark this solemn anniversary we present a series of outstanding columns on law enforcement’s role in the continuing fight against terrorism. Below, Sgt. Glenn French says that while there’s no doubt that answering calls for service is the primary function for patrol, it’ll be patrol to be the first to respond to the terrorist or active shooter.

As the children in our country return to school for another year of studies, millions of people in America are also return to the memory of 9/11. These two things will always overlap on our calendar, in part by happenstance. But for law enforcement, which still struggles with the concept of how to respond to an active shooter incident, these coinciding annual events serve as a reminder. Schools have been targets of active shooters who have not fully completed puberty (Columbine), and by mature terrorists set on their own strategic objectives (Beslan).

We criticize training concepts and response methods depending on the individual or police department’s perspective or current methods. For whatever reason, officers and police departments feel the need to learn a specific tactic and deem it their method of response. This debate over a single entry response or a small unit response is counterproductive. There is no single tactic that works for all combat situations. As a police trainer or tactical commander never let your thinking become so narrow that you side with one of these tactics and argue it to be the best over another.

The ongoing debate about whether or not police officers should respond solo or in a tactical formation will be left to the discretion of the officer(s) on the scene who are working the problem as they formulate their response plan and put it into action. They will make the decision based on the limited information on hand at the time the problem is unfolding. Both concepts are proper measures of action depending on the situation.

I have watched this drama unfold for several years now and to me the answer is clear. The uniformed officers in this country need tactical options, tactical training, and tactical equipment available to them on the streets. We wouldn’t send our soldiers into combat without proper tactical training so why are we training our uniformed officers a single tactic and professing it’s the best tactic to neutralize an adversary that is hell bent on murdering innocent victims.

The Columbine incident was supposed to be a wake up call for law enforcement and yet we still struggle to grasp the true changes needed in law enforcement. The Columbine shootings started at 11:19 a.m. as the two murderers walked through the school, shooting and killing children. At 11:24 a.m. a Jefferson County Deputy arrived and engaged the two suspects standing at a door. Inside that door a student lay injured from gunshots. The deputy emptied his gun and radioed for assistance. The two suspects ran back into the school and continued the carnage. The injured student made his way to safety and lived. Three others would be murdered shortly thereafter. It’s apparent that the deputy’s actions of engaging the two gunmen may have saved that students life.

Both assailants ran back into the school, killing or injuring another 22 students. During the course of their terror they were able to set fires and ignite small bombs. At 12:08 the two cowards committed suicide. The first SWAT teams entered and started to clear the school at 1:08 p.m. and they found 12 dead students and 22 injured students.

So, let’s ponder the hypothetical idea that this Jefferson County Deputy would have had a level III tactical vest, a tactical ballistic helmet, a patrol rifle with 8-12 magazines and some tactical training. Let’s also assume that other responding deputies would have the same tactical equipment and training. Perhaps these officers are SWAT members but assigned to uniformed duties and carry all their tactical equipment with them.

Either way, they could have arrived on scene and assessed the situation. They could have prepared for combat like our military soldiers do on every mission. They would have donned their tactical gear, formulated a tactical plan and in a matter of minutes they would have been able to confront the two suspects with a clear plan of attack.

Hypothetically, the incident could have concluded in less than five minutes after arrival on scene and not an hour and ten minutes later. This level of response is where professional law enforcement needs to be. I would like to note however, that these deputies and officers at that time where acting as they were taught and as their department protocols demanded. They are not to blame for the response time into the school.

The response to the Virginia Tech massacre is another example of the standard that police agencies should set for their departments. The shooter in this incident entered Norris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus and killed 32 people.

The entire shooting rampage is estimated to have occurred within eleven minutes. From the time the first 911 calls were received from Norris Hall to the time the shooter kills himself fewer than nine minutes will pass. Blacksburg police and Virginia Tech police arrived at Norris Hall and made entry into the building in less than five minutes. Once entry was gained and the team moved toward the sound of shots fired, it took just 28 seconds for police to reach the second floor. Cho took his own life as the two teams searched for the killer.

The officers that entered Norris Hall arrived and assessed the situation, formulated a plan of action and began working the problem. They where equipped with tactical equipment and some were patrol officers that were also on the part time SWAT teams. They encountered problems like you will on any tactical mission but they overcame these obstacles and their presence neutralized the killer.

Another standard that police agencies should strive to achieve is the response to a gunman who burst into a North Carolina nursing home and started shooting everything, killing seven residents and a nurse and wounding at least three others. The lone officer has been praised as a hero and did exactly what he was trained to do. The Carthage police chief told reporters it is standard procedure for an officer to go in without backup for some emergency situations "where multiple lives are at stake."

The officer hit the suspect with the only round he fired. Within minutes, other officers responded to assist but the uniformed Warrior had already neutralized the suspect.

This incident is an obvious success from a law enforcements perspective. However, this officer still could have benefited from a level III vest, and a ballistic helmet.

These incidents are only a small sample of the types of responses to active shooters. There are many more examples that make the case for solo entry and small unit tactics. The common theme here that is being overlooked is that patrol officers need the same tactical options that are available to SWAT. If not, then SWAT needs to be held to a standard of response that is much quicker than the old way of doing business as it applies to acts of terrorism or an active shooter incident.

If the majority of the tactical teams in this country are part time and or multi-jurisdictional, I think it’s safe to say that the response time for these units probably average around an hour or more. Obviously, the active shooter incidents in this country prove that we only have minutes. So, why is an hour still an acceptable response time? The answer is: it’s not. Active shooters are a patrol problem unless patrol has tactical officers on the road.

Tactical officers that are assigned to the patrol division should be allowed to carry their tactical weapons and tactical gear in their patrol cars. Departments could also have one officer sign out and carry in their patrol cars various items such as less lethal munitions, chemical munitions, audio and video electronics for scouting, flash bangs, shields and any other equipment to support a small squad tactical mission. Uniformed officers would then be able to respond with more protective gear, better weapon systems and most importantly the tactical skills and knowledge that only SWAT has been getting for so many years.

SWAT has many and various options available to them for any given tactical problem to help them resolve it successfully. Each tactic is specific to that particular SWAT problem. You won’t hear from most SWAT cops that any “one” tactic is the only tactic to use. That’s because different tactics will net different results. That concept also applies to patrol responding to active shooter incidents. The mentioned active shooter incidents are proof of that.

It’s time we stop arguing about which active shooter response is best and train in all the various concepts. You Warriors can only enhance your response capabilities by educating yourselves in as many tactics as possible. Like any other call for service, it should be left to the responding officers’ discretion which tactic to employ when it’s your life on the line.

The single greatest factor that will change the way law enforcement does business with terrorists and active shooters is to change the current mindset of contemporary policing. While there’s no doubt that answering calls for service is the primary function for patrol, it’ll be patrol to be the first to respond to the terrorist or active shooter.

When the time comes for your agency to respond to such an event it is our duty to provide the innocent victims with the most professional police response available. That means giving the uniformed Warrior the proper tactical gear to protect himself as he enters into combat, the same way a firefighter putting on his protective gear to battle a fire. It also means giving the uniformed Warrior the training, tactics and skills to bring the incident to a successfully resolution.

Ultimately, success for the officer is success for his department and its image. Progressive police agencies are starting to slowly make this transition. They recognize the importance of giving their Warriors the proper tools for success. The day may be near when the debate on how to respond to active shooters will be a thing of the past.

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