Department – Forefront: Opinion on Current Law Enforcement Issues
Headline-The Newtown Tragedy: Are Rapid Response Tactics Really the Answer?
We will never forget the precious faces of the tiny victims of the Newtown Massacre or the unimaginable pain wrought by their deaths, but neither can we forget the adults who died with them. We will remember the courage of teacher Victoria Soto, who was found dead huddled over her treasured charges. We honor the courage of Principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach who valiantly ran toward the sound of the gunfire to confront the killer. These caring women died in selfless efforts to protect the children they so deeply cherished. Their courage is an inspiration to us all. But we also cannot ignore the fact that their sacrifices, however courageous, were made largely in vain. While all the facts are not in yet, it appears the bravery of Principal Hochsprung and Mrs. Sherlach did little more than slow down the satanic killer for a tragically brief moment, and although Ms. Soto probably saved the children she sheltered with her body, her noble actions could not prevent her murderer from moving on to other innocent targets.
How will we remember these loving adults and the other innocent victims in Newtown? Do we simply mourn their loss for an appropriate time and then move on as they fade from our memories, or do we honor them by learning from their sacrifice?
If we are to learn anything worthwhile from this loss, we must be brutally honest. We must set aside all politics and preconceived notions, and pragmatically look for answers that will work in the real world of rapid mass murder. The first step is to briefly review the history of our response to active killer incidents.
Columbine: A Change in Focus
After Columbine, we acknowledged the need to change our focus from placing officer safety first. We developed tactics that for the first time rushed officers into harm’s way and allowed for acceptable police casualties. Though this approach increased our risks, the vast majority of officers willingly accepted it for the sake of their citizens. But the focus was on four- or sometimes three-man teams, when in reality there isn’t time for that. Our recognition of this fact has led to a switch to solo or two-man entries, again with increased risks that we readily accepted.
Despite our laudable willingness to change, it is time to accept the fact that even solo entries are unrealistic. They simply won’t work in most cases, not because of the added risk to police officers, but because we can’t get there in time. Ron Borsch, the director of the SEALE Regional Police Training Academy in Bedford, Ohio, and a leading expert on mass murders who backs up his findings with hard data, has accumulated some painful facts we can no longer ignore. For instance, the typical delay in notifying the police during an active killer incident is nearly six minutes! Historically, active killers shoot at, wound, or kill two to eight victims per minute, with the frequency of gunshots steadily rising since Columbine. This means as many as 48 citizens are likely to be targeted before we are even notified. When we add the precious minutes consumed in taking the frantic, often confusing call, dispatching units, responding to the scene, entering the facility (which will likely be delayed if the facility is locked down), locating the shooter amidst all the confusion, and neutralizing him, what Borsch calls the Stopwatch of Death© will undoubtedly take many more innocent victims.1
These heartbreaking truths demand the shooter be stopped at the earliest possible instant. We in law enforcement may be more than willing to accept that responsibility, but this is one of those cases in which willpower alone cannot get the job done. Only someone in close proximity to the shooter can act swiftly enough to save a significant number of lives, and he/she must possess the will and ability to act without regard to his/her personal safety. Dawn Hochsprung, Mary Sherlach and Victoria Soto certainly possessed that will, but unarmed as they were, they tragically lacked
The only realistic answer is to place armed personnel in every one of our schools, including the elementary schools (Sandy Hook shattered the myth that the lower grades are less vulnerable to mass violence), and to make sure those armed responders are properly selected and trained. The debate about how much impact stricter gun control measures and/or improved mental health care can have on this problem will long continue, but it is inevitable that some mass killers will fall through the cracks no matter what we do.
Beslan: Contemplating Terrorism
Moreover, lest our dismay over Newtown makes us forget, the threat of terrorist attacks on our schools still exists. Though most Americans have ignored this reality—probably because it is too terrifying to contemplate—we must remember we have foreign enemies who have already proven their willingness and ability to commit heinous terrorist acts on American soil. Organized terrorist attacks on schools can be unbelievably devastating, as can be seen from carnage caused by the attack on Beslan Middle School in Russia by Chechen terrorists in 2004. The death toll among the children there reached the unthinkable figure of 172! In addition, at least 158 adults were killed, including 10-20 elite Russian counter-terrorist troops. The most important lesson we can learn from this bloodbath is that any organized terrorist takeover must be disrupted at the earliest possible moment, even if it means heavy losses to the armed responders. This is because any delay will allow the terrorists to herd their young victims together in one place, wire the area with explosives, and then fortify their positions to the point that any rescue attempt will be enormously costly in innocent lives.2
A Beslan-style attack in the U.S. would dwarf the tragedy in Newtown many times over. It is something we don’t want to think about, but it is even more unthinkable to allow it to happen. We must have armed responders in our schools, and not just one. There must be enough of them in each school to deal with any mass violence without delay. Depending upon the size of the school, this means at least two in each building, and in a larger building, ideally at least one on each level of each wing.
School Resource Officers
The question is: Who should fill these crucial positions? School Resource Officers (SROs) are the obvious choice, as they are equipped, trained and mentally prepared to properly deal with armed offenders. They also know the layout, schedule, students and staff at the schools where they are assigned, and can coordinate well with responding patrol units. Nevertheless, they have one unavoidable shortcoming—there aren’t enough of them!
This is not meant to imply that SROs don’t play an important part in keeping our school children safe from active killers. To the contrary, they are our most valuable resource. Besides being among the first to respond to any armed intruder, they act as essential liaisons between the school and police department and serve as trusted advisors to the school staff on safety matters. By their nature, they are also the most likely to notice any suspicious individuals and intervene early enough to prevent violence. They are the logical choice for coordinating the planning and training needed to properly respond to active killer incidents. Nevertheless, it would be naïve to expect them to do the job alone. Unless we are willing to pay for several full-time officers to patrol the hallways of every school every minute of every day, we must find ways to supplement our SROs in the defense of our children.
One resource for this purpose is part-time or volunteer armed responders. Many concerned parents would probably be willing to step up, as would a number of active and retired police officers and military veterans. The cost of this option would be considerably less than manning every school with several SROs, but scheduling, dependable attendance, and turnover tend to be problematic when training and deploying part-time and volunteer help.
This leaves us with the most radical option—arming our educators. This is not to say every teacher should be armed or our schools should be turned into armed compounds. The issued weapons would have to be well concealed or locked away in unseen but readily accessible gun lockers, and only teachers and staff who are willing to serve in this vital but dangerous role should be used.
Furthermore, the training of these responders must be extensive, well planned, and frequent. Considering the difficulties involved in shooting inside a crowded, chaotic school building during an active killer incident, the firearms training should be even more extensive than that given to the average SRO or patrol officer. Ideally, all the armed responders, including those from the active ranks of law enforcement, should be able to score well above average at the range, and be thoroughly trained in low light, multiple moving targets, barricade shooting, shoot/don’t shoot scenarios, etc. Tactics must also be part of the training, including tactics for coordinating with both the SRO and arriving patrol units.
Beyond this, the first responders should also be well trained in legal use of force and situational awareness. Situational awareness is especially important, because rapid threat identification is crucial to a quick response and many ordinary citizens don’t know anything about it. For example, gunfire often doesn’t always sound like what people expect, especially in large buildings with multiple rooms. Moreover, the average citizen isn’t conditioned to be on the alert for, and react quickly to, suspicious behaviors, sounds, etc., and may well freeze in a crisis. Proper training and the confidence it creates will go a long way in helping staff to respond quickly to any threats that may occur.
Some will object to this idea because they feel teachers already have enough to do without the added burden of student safety, but this view ignores the fact that educators possess an innate, deep-seated protective instinct for their students. Like Dawn Hochsprung, Mary Sherlach and Victoria Soto, many will act to protect their students whether armed or not. And like these three noble women, those who act while unarmed will probably lose their lives. We owe it to them—and to the children they protect—to give them the means to defend themselves and others. They need to
In addition to providing each school with a sufficient number of dedicated armed responders, this option takes advantage of the fact that teachers and staff are even more familiar with the building’s layout, schedule, activities, students (especially those in their own classroom) and fellow staff members than the SRO. When combined with proper training, this can be an invaluable asset for quickly resolving an active killer incident with minimal casualties.
On the other hand, unlike SROs, armed staff members are not immediately identifiable as “good guys.” While this may give them a slight advantage by helping them make a lower profile approach to the shooter, it also makes them more vulnerable to friendly fire. However, this threat is as great as it may seem, because the first armed responders to arrive will probably be fellow staff members and/or the SRO, all of whom know one another. Further, if the shooter is neutralized before patrol units arrive, as is likely with a properly trained staff, there will be very little risk of friendly fire from those responding officers. To further ease this concern, the armed staff should be carefully trained in how to react to the approach of responding officers. This training should be closely coordinated with the local police agency so all parties are thoroughly familiar with the procedures involved.
The horror in Newtown is a heartbreak that can never be erased from our history. We can’t change what happened there, but we can learn from it. Many will try, and we will undoubtedly learn some things that can help prevent similar tragedies in the future. But the cruel truth is that Sandy Hook will not be our last mass school shooting. No matter how hard we try, the day will come when another subhuman will fulfill his sick needs by trying to murder our little ones. The question is: Will we be ready to stop him?
1. Borsch, R. (Oct. 2010) The Posse Theory: Is It a Workable Tactic Against Mass Murder? Spartan Cops guest post. http://www.spartancops.com/posse-theory-workable-tactic-mass-murder/ > at 27 December 2012.
2. Giduck, J. (2005) Terror at Beslan: A Russian Tragedy with Lessons for American Schools. Archangel Group, Inc. p. 172.
Brian McKenna is a retired lieutenant from the Hazelwood, Mo. Police Department, where he served in patrol, mobile reserve and training. He is a 32-year police veteran with a strong background in training both at the recruit and in-service levels, a state certified police instructor, a certified Force Science Analyst, and a member of ILEETA and IALEFI. Brian writes extensively on officer safety topics, and trains officers nationwide in winning mindset. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.we-training.com.