FOREFRONT:Demystifying the Active Shooter



By George T. Williams

Demystifying the Active Shooter

“Law enforcement has wasted more than a decade arguing about tactics in response to the Active Shooter.”

– Sgt. Craig Allen, Hillsboro, OR Police Department.

Responding to the Active Shooter event, or criminal mass-casualty incident, became a fundamental training requirement for U.S. law enforcement in the post-Columbine era. The sudden dispatched information of a spree shooting at a mall, office building, or school is no longer unfamiliar to officers racing to stop a possibly horrific event. When these mass murders occur, it is not unusual for hundreds of police officers, firefighters, and EMS personnel to descend upon the location within one hour of the initial dispatch. While infrequent (and simultaneously far too frequent), the incomprehensibly inhumane nature of the act, the sheer number of wounded or dead, the naïve belief that individuals should be perfectly safe from violence in these locations, and the event’s rapidity combine to create an inflated belief that these suspects are more of a threat than they actually are.

These events have created a perception within law enforcement of a unique, larger-than-life event requiring special tactics or techniques. SWAT teams quickly took over this training, inventing or adapting specialized techniques to apply to this situation. Officers have been trained at huge expense and continue to attend training featuring unproven formation or cell training. The gravity of this mass-casualty event creates the impression of an almost mystical event where special dangers have been magnified.

It is time to demystify this violent crime. Placing it into a special category has prevented functional solutions. “Once we hyper focus on a problem, we become incapable of a practical and efficient solution. We have to pull back and look at the entire situation. Once we do that, we realize that the problem encountered requires more than single task chains. We have to be systemic in action to truly deliver an admirable result. Until then, we will be at the mercy of ego, pride, and irreparable tradition.” Special tactics and exaggerated dangers should no longer influence the training and response to these criminal mass-casualty incidents. Indeed, the actual context of these crimes must drive doctrine, training, and life-saving response.

The Crime

We have a lot of information about these events, although, unfortunately, statistics cannot predict future events. Problematically, officers historically arrive in time to interrupt the shooting in less than one of every 13 events. From 2008 to 2011, the average spree killing—the rapid mass murder of innocents—took place in less than three minutes. Suspects have recently become even quicker with their murders. Since 2011, these incidents typically conclude within two minutes (the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting took less than a minute with 70 persons shot).

Cops need to respond to the location and quickly make contact with the suspect if they are to be a factor in the event. Waiting to mass and then cautiously moving throughout the building takes officers out of play.

Fundamentally, this is a shooting call—a man with a gun who is presently randomly shooting people. The large number of potential victims does not change the nature—or danger—of the call. This problem will eventually soak up a large number of resources, but the immediate solution is something the average patrol officer with average tactical skills can safely resolve.

The suspects tend to be cowardly. Of spree shooters since 2008, 90 percent have committed suicide upon concluding their shooting or in response to any type of force. Like most predatory criminals, they choose their victims based on their vulnerability. Gun-free zones, with their promise of defenseless targets, are the most likely location. Unless officers are on-scene when the shooting begins, their role is generally to either confirm the suspect has committed suicide, or rarely to take the suspect into custody.

Bottom line, this type of suspect is a teenager or adult male with a gun who generally folds under pressure, whether from force (victims fighting back, lawfully armed civilians responding, or the presence of an officer nearing the location or firing at the suspect) or by committing suicide.

Responding to a shooting in-progress is by definition dangerous. It does not have to be inflated into something bigger than it is.

Special Tactical Needs?

Are there special tactical needs necessary for resolving these incidents? Formation training has been nearly universal, yet not a single incident has been interrupted by massed officers moving to contact in an organized cell. This training is becoming increasingly recognized as impractical.

Effective response to a criminal mass-casualty incident tolerates no delay if interrupting the shooting is the goal. A solo or two-officer entry through multiple access points and converging on the suspect safely facilitates this priority. Upon entry and noting indicators of threat (gunshots, 9-1-1 reports from dispatch, a trail of wounded, screaming, people pointing, or panicked fleeing), the officer(s) moves quickly to the suspect’s location. If there are no indicators, officers move quickly to seize key architectural features (hallways, stair exits, and elevator banks) on each floor, limiting possible suspect mobility, as following officers begin a more systematic search to locate the suspect.

The tactical fundamentals of maintaining and defending from angles of threat as well as clearing and fighting from corners provides a safer, more effective basis for movement. Angles of threat include fields of fire, possible trajectories, and kill zones, as well as visual angles of incidence. Officers move from cleared corners, ready to react to any threat from uncleared corners. From a cleared corner, officers shoot or communicate with the suspect. There is little reason to enter most rooms to contact the suspect. Firearms are distance weapons, and shooting from a corner at least affords the officer concealment.

Initial movement tends to be very quick, often at a fast jog when the threat indicators are distant, transitioning to a slower, more cautious approach as the officer perceives he/she is nearing the suspect’s location. Carefully clearing the corner, the officer moves to an angle to observe the suspect. If there is imminent threat behavior satisfying deadly force policy, the officer fights from the corner without warning to stop the suspect.

There is an Additional Life-Saving Priority

Hillsboro, Ore. Police and Fire Departments recognized in 2011 that there are actually two concurrent life-saving priorities: interrupting the suspect if possible while preventing the wounded from dying. The “Hillsboro Criminal Mass-Casualty Incident Model” calls for an integrated police and fire response: Police initially enter to interrupt the suspect via solo or two-officer entry by multiple access points. Within 6-10 minutes of the first officer entering, following officers set up and secure a Casualty Collection Point (CCP) within the location. As officers clear the building in their attempt to locate the suspect, others begin transferring wounded to the CCP. Fire units make entry into the CCP within 10-15 minutes to begin their Mass-Casualty Incident protocol, triaging, stabilizing, and transporting the wounded as quickly as possible to area trauma centers and hospitals. All patients are transported from the scene within 45 minutes.

Every activity is geared to achieving the twin goals of interrupting the shooting as early as possible and facilitating the wounded arriving at an emergency room within one hour of being shot.

Demystifying the Event

While the number of wounded is horrifying, the mechanics are uncomplicated. Typically, an angry, vengeful, and often mentally ill male with little training shoots as many unarmed people in a gun-free zone as possible. If the police are to interrupt the spree, officers must locate and interdict the suspect within moments of arriving.

Dedicated and earnest SWAT team members tend to be tasked with teaching patrol officers how to respond to these events. SWAT team members, being small unit specialists, tend to favor small unit solutions. Hence, the promulgation of formations, the thorough search of a structure, rear security, and tightly scripted movement with assigned sectors of fire. However, formations are overcome by the rapidity of the events—people are dying. The shooting concludes without police involvement. Additionally, focusing on techniques of movement and room entry suitable for warrant service does not apply to an Active Shooter incident.

Rapidly moving to contact using proven principle-based movement is far safer and effective. Moreover, cooperating with firefighters to rapidly establish a secure CCP, officers transferring wounded to the CCP, and facilitating firefighter-medics’ early entry into the CCP is a co-priority if the lives of the severely wounded are to be saved as well.

The Active Shooter event is a man-with-a-gun, shooting in-progress call. If it were at a bar between two or three people, though dangerous, no special tactics would be promoted other than a safe, rapid approach, clearing angles of threat and uncleared corners, and contacting the suspect from a corner while determining his imminent threat status. Whether the suspect shoots two people or 20, the danger of the spree killing situation to officers is the same—except the Active Shooting suspect tends to commit suicide more often. The number of wounded is the only change in a spree event. Providing officers the freedom to respond quickly and effectively is the key to stopping the slaughter.

It isn’t mystical. Let’s stop thinking that it’s more than it really is. Then we can get down to what is practical and what is not, train for the real, and better respond to save lives. That’s “what’s important now.” PM


George T. Williams is the Director of Training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, Wash. He has been a Police Training Specialist for more than three decades, as well as an expert witness in federal and state courts nationwide and a widely published author for more than two decades. Mr. Williams develops and presents revolutionary concepts within integrated force training solutions through a problem-solving format, functionalizing police skills and tactical training. He may be contacted at

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