The term “active shooter” is a perfect description for what happens in these increasing familiar incidents. One or more people begin shooting everyone in sight, either for a specific purpose or simply at random. As to be expected, when a new rash of crimes comes into being, law enforcement begins adapting and gearing up to meet the challenges the incidents present. Unfortunately, we have learned the hard way that to wait for a SWAT team to respond at the scene will not save a single person. An active shooter incident requires an immediate, effective and efficient act of courage. Whether a police officer is on or off duty, he needs to ride to the sound of the guns, and end the threat as quickly as possible.
The list of cities struck by the phenomenon of active shooters is tragically long. These incidents have occurred in places as diverse as Austin, Texas; Edmond, Okla.; Moss Lake, Wash.; Littleton, Colo.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Oak Creek, Wis.; Red Lake, Minn.; Montreal; Los Angeles; Nickel Mines, Penn.; Blacksburg, Va.; and Honolulu. Basically, they are not limited to one geographic or socioeconomic area. Therefore, law enforcement agencies all over the country are designing training programs to address the possibility that they might face similar threats in their jurisdictions. Their ultimate goal is to eliminate and minimize casualties in the event their officers are met with this unique challenge.
Police departments do not have to wait until bullets are flying and people are dying to stop the active shooter. Sometimes, officers are able to step between the shooter and his intended victims long before the screaming and bleeding begins. There are five phases of this type of incident.
1. Fantasy stage
2. Planning stage
3. Preparation stage
4. Approach stage
5. Implementation stage
Initially, the shooter only dreams of the shooting. He fantasizes about the headlines and the news coverage he’ll receive. He pictures breaking the death count record of the previous active shooter, and going out in a blaze of glory. He may draw pictures of the event, make Web postings and even discuss these desires with friends and foes alike. If these fantasies are passed on to law enforcement, police intervention can take place prior to the suspect’s attack. In this case, there may even be zero casualties.
The suspect is still a potential active shooter at this stage. He is determining logistics – the who, what, when, where and how of the infamous day. He may put plans down in writing and will often discuss these plans with others. A time and location will be decided upon – one that will ensure the greatest number of victims or, in some cases, target specific individuals. The potential shooter will determine the weapons needed and how they will be obtained. He will decide how to travel to the target location and how to dress to conceal his weapons without arousing suspicion. If the police are tipped off at this time, intervention may be made with zero casualties.
A law enforcement agency can still intervene during the preparation stage. The suspect may be obtaining gun powder or other chemicals for his improvised explosive devices. He might break into a house to steal weapons and ammunition and/or hide them away in a designated place closer to where he plans to attack. He may also do a practice run or walkthrough of the operation, gearing himself up for the assault. Potential shooters have been known to call friends and tell them not to go to school or work on a certain day, in order to keep them out of the line-of-fire. If one of these people informs police of their concerns, there is another opportunity for law enforcement to intervene before the event. If this is the case, there is a real possibility that there may be zero casualties.
The closer the time to the planned event, the more dangerous it will be for an officer taking action. By the approach stage, the suspect has made his plans and has committed himself to carry out the act. At this point, he is actually moving toward the intended target and will most likely be carrying the tools that he’ll use for the massacre.
Officers may come into contact with the suspect at this stage because of a citizen complaint, a traffic stop or something simialr. A thorough investigation can lead to an arrest of the suspect before he brings down a multitude of innocent people in a shooting or bombing. However dangerous the stop, an alert and armed officer has a final chance to intervene if he is prepared and aware during every street contact. This contact could become a lifesaver and may end in zero casualties.
The implementation stage
Once the shooter opens fire, immediate action must be taken. Initial responding officers need to immediately proceed to the suspect and stop the threat. If he is not stopped, the active shooter will continue to kill until he runs out of victims or ammunition. Remember, the active shooter is unique because he is going for the “top score,” or the highest number of kills on record for an active shooter incident. It is almost like a bizarre video game, except it’s real.
The sooner someone – anyone – effectively intervenes through an act of courage, the fewer funerals will result. In past incidents, active shooters have been thwarted by police officers, security guards and school teachers. In October 2006, Principal John Klang of Weston High School in Cazenovia, Wis., died wrestling an armed 15 year-old student to the floor. Klang saved every life in the school – except his own.
Responding officers will need to practice Quick Aggressive Deployment, also known as QUAD, in case the suspect goes on a shooting rampage. Law enforcement officers who respond will be able to utilize these following factors to their advantage:
- Someone must stop the shooter, thereby ending the killing spree.
- The shooter will be highly focused on spraying bullets into as many people as possible.
- Expect the scene to be loud and chaotic.
- Use the chaos to move quietly to an advantageous position.
- Terrified victims and the sound of gunfire will direct officers to the shooter.
- When an active shooting is in progress, officers do not have to verbalize warnings or requests if it endangers lives. Take the shot! Make the shot!
- If the subject is contained in a nonviolent pose, officers should begin negotiations and initiate a classic SWAT response.
A single officer responding to an active shooter must realize that, while he may be able to minimize some of the carnage, the shooter is ultimately responsible for all casualties. This is a vital piece of knowledge – police are not responsible for the casualties. Preparation for active shooter incidents should be made in advance. Each officer has only a moment to decide whether to contain and wait for additional units, or to take immediate action, because innocent victims are dying with each shot. This is a dire situation and you may have to risk your life.
The first responding officer should radio as much information as possible, outlining what appears to be going on and all other relevant data. This transfer of information makes it easier for follow-up elements to respond. Making an entry with four is better than three. Making an entry with three is better than two. Making an entry with two is better than one. Making an entry with one is better than none. Breathe, think and advance using the chaos as a diversion. Remember “long guns for long halls.” Officers need superior firepower. Officers may have to pass rooms and courtyards that have not been cleared in order to reach the shooter. Gather as many facts as possible. Move to a position of advantage that affords a field of vision and cover, as well as a clear shot at the suspect. Attempt to do this without alerting the suspect. Quickly assess the suspect’s actions. If he is shooting, do not advise, warn or request. Take the shot! Make the shot! Look for additional threats. Communicate the situation and location. Reload during the lull while watching the suspect and looking for accomplices. Secure the suspect. Assess his condition.
Police officers who carry a firearm while off duty should ask themselves:
- Do I have a weapon I have trained with?
- Do I have a way to identify myself as a police officer?
- Do I have a way to secure a suspect?
- Do I have a way to communicate (such as a cell phone)?
- Do I have reload capability?
- Have I done hands-on training in responding to the active shooter?
If you answered no to any of these questions, take additional action so you can answer yes.
Officers who do not carry a firearm while off duty should ask themselves the following:
- Should I carry while off duty in a post 9/11 world?
- If someone was shooting in my child’s school, would I take action armed or not?
- If I was about to be shot by an active shooter, would I refuse to go quietly into the night?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to consider carrying a weapon while off duty. Research your department’s policy and the laws in your area. Recent changes in federal law make it easier for a sworn police officer to carry a concealed weapon outside his jurisdiction when off duty. New laws have been enacted to allow retired police officers to carry concealed weapons, if they are trained and have a proper identification and authorization from their agencies.
I am not suggesting officers meet deadly force with empty hands. However, an active shooter incident may literally be “do or die.” Officers are warriors. When a warrior is armed, any weapon he carries he should be trained with to the point that it’s an extension of his being. Officers should also train in the naked warrior philosophy, so that even when unarmed, they are deadly and dangerous, should they have to protect innocents.
Officers should ask themselves:
- Do I train in disarming techniques for the worst case scenario?
- Do I practice “if-then thinking” while I am off-duty in order to identify all of the deadly, improvised weapons I could use as a last resort?
- Could I apply deadly force effectively with my own hands?
The active shooter is a very real challenge of our time. Any one or more of us reading this article may be faced with this situation. It doesn’t matter if you are a patrol officer, police chief, sheriff, deputy or school liaison officer, or whether you are on or off duty. Somewhere, someday, an active shooter may be a threat to you, your family and the people you are sworn to protect. When you least expect it, you may have to ride to the sound of guns. Be prepared.
About the author
Lt. Dan Marcou retired after 32 years of law enforcement service. He was a highly decorated member of the La Crosse Wisconsin Police Department.