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Patrol Response Challenge

The word is getting out. In spite of almost a decade of active shooter training, we can’t get to a school or workplace shooting in time. Major Steve Ijames (ret.), Springfield, MO Police was the first to openly discuss this reality during a presentation at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference. Ijames is both familiar to, and credible with, virtually all tactical officers.

Specifically, since the 1999 change in police response following Columbine, zero dispatched, on-duty officers have been able to stop an active shooter. There have been many rapid, proper active shooter responses since 1999. The patrol officers did what they were trained to do, but TIME remains against us. If our response takes 5 to 7 minutes and the shooting is over in 3 to 4 minutes, which historically it has been, we don’t arrive in time to stop the violence. The impressive 5- to 6-minute response by Omaha, NE police officers is just the most recent confirmation of this fact of the active shooter situation.

In the past few years, there have been three heroic successes in an active shooter scenario. Each of these officer-engage-suspect successes was performed by officers who were already at or near the scene, on or off duty. These were not the result of a 9-1-1 call for help and a radio dispatched patrol officer arriving on scene to engage the shooter. That is an important distinction, and it leads directly to a few possible solutions.

Tough Issues

Recently, police departments have tackled two very tough issues with the active shooter response. The first is the need for breaching tools at the patrol level. Sergeant Paul Brandley with Pawtucket, RI Police was among the first to emphasize this. (See his article in this issue of Tactical Response.) The Virginia Tech shootings, of course, confirmed it.

Star Trek’s Scotty isn’t going to beam anyone anywhere. Responding patrol units must get inside the school or workplace by themselves—without SWAT. They have to be able to breach the building or already have a key access. This is especially true with the current practice of school lockdowns and controlled access to many office buildings.

Patrol supervisors now realize this gap in the active shooter response and have been putting crowbars, chain cutters, and Halligan tools in patrol car trunks. And yes, the front bumper will also work.

The second tough issue is the minimum number of officers to deploy in an active shooter formation. In the past eight years, nearly all the training has focused on four officers. In fact, many trainers have been bogged down in debating the merits of a four-officer diamond formation, four-officer Y-formation or four-officer T-formation and overlooked the reality of the short response time. For many departments, the real issue has always been a proper deployment for three or two officers. Our rural department has practiced two officer responses since 2001.

This reality is also finally catching on. Some active shooter training now involves numbers less than four. The current debate, an excellent one, involves the deployment of just the first solo officer versus waiting for the second officer. After almost 40 years of SWAT, we are coming back full circle. The first patrol officer on the scene does what it takes, period. Because timing is so much against us from the start, more and more departments are opting for this “first officer makes entry” tactic.

We know for sure that police aggression stops the shooter. The offender knows we are coming. He already knows what he is going to do when confronted by force. The most likely outcomes are suicide, followed by surrender, followed by suicide by cop. These are not the Miami (1986) or North Hollywood (1997) felons. Active shooters rarely shoot at responding police, except for SROs. One officer running his way will end it. So do that sooner rather than later.

Every 15 Seconds

In a five-year period, there were 24 school shootings in 18 states and 41 workplace shootings in 12 states. Based on the length of time the shooting spree lasted and the number of people shot during the incident, we have a statistic to help evaluate each step we take. Once the shooting starts, another person is shot every 15 seconds. Think in terms of 15-second intervals.

It took 15 seconds from the gunshot to grabbing the cell phone to dialing 9-1-1 to reach to the cell towers to actually make the first ring to the department. It took 15 seconds to pop the trunk, exit the car, lift the trunk lid, find the rifle case, unzip the case and grab the rifle. It took 15 seconds for very physically fit officers to run from the school’s entrance to the cafeteria.

That brings us right back to the hardest of all the active shooter realities: time. And to the gut-check of exactly how little time really exists to respond. The stopwatch has always decided theory from reality, and bravado from wishful thinking. Stopwatch times, like facts, are stubborn things. Once the stopwatch forces us to see reality, we will begin to respond better to the active shooter. However, until that reality sinks in, we will continue with well-meaning, but ineffective responses to the active shooter.

Patrol Response Challenge

So, here is the patrol-level challenge. Just exactly like a fire drill, do a real active shooter drill, and time it to the second. Do what we did and try to beat our time. It started with the deputy at his desk in the sheriff’s department working on a report. The patrol vehicle was locked. The drill involved driving from the center of a small town (population 2,500), then down a divided highway to the school, which was 5.5 miles from the department. The watch was stopped when the deputy shined a light on the instructor, who was standing in a darkened cafeteria.

Of course, you can cheat and have your officer “just happen” to be near the school when he takes the radio call. First, you won’t learn anything from stacking the deck like that. Second, of course, that is the real answer to the problem! (We will get back to that later.)

Start the clock 5 seconds after the gunshot. Frankly, the stressful period of confusion, shock, surprise and denial after the gunshot in a high school would probably push the time to make a real cell call, including hitting the 9-1-1 touch pads to 30 seconds or much more. But build your “best-case” response, and remember that it is the “best case.”

Next, dial 9-1-1 and wait (and wait) for a dispatcher to ask your emergency. “Someone is shooting teachers and students in the high school. They are in the cafeteria.” Click. Of course, no one will be able to speak that lucidly or clearly or concisely, but again we are building the “best case.” Next, watch the second hand sweep away as the dispatcher radios any or all units. The officer supervising the drill MUST have a police radio or in-car MDT to see how incredibly long this step really takes. Seconds count.

The Dispatched Location

Now, the hard part, which is actually also part of the solution to come later. A patrol unit responds, but from where? Well, where would the patrol units typically be? Where are most of your calls for service? What is the highest probability location? Those with automated vehicle locators can be quite objective here. Randomly pick five different times during the school day. Where were your units at 0915 hours Monday, 1005 hours Tuesday, 1115 hours Wednesday, 1320 hours Thursday and 1440 hours Friday? THAT is the location they should deploy from for the drill. (And don’t cheat!)

After the dispatcher radios the patrol unit, start the emergency run, complete with lights and siren in daytime traffic. Of course, the run must be in due regard for the safety of others. To lower the risk of this phase of the drill, you may want to pick the time of day and day of week with the least traffic. (We made our runs on Sunday afternoon.)

Again, watch the second hand as you monitor the progress of the responding units. You won’t believe how long it takes to leave the substation desk, exit the building, run to the car, get in and start the car and put it into drive! (And the patrol car has not yet even left the parking lot.)

Once the officer arrives on scene, pay attention to exactly what he does because this aspect has plenty of training and equipment ramifications. Should he spend a precious 15 seconds getting the shotgun or rifle from the trunk? (Yes.) Can he find the rifle buried under 200 pounds of other cop stuff? (Maybe.) Is the rifle ready to go, or does it need to have a mag inserted and round chambered? This delay really points to the need for in-car gun racks, of course.

Next, enter the building. Does he have a key or access card? Or is that back in the center console? (Hint: carry the swipe card in your breast pocket.) Finally, does the officer even know where the gym, principal’s office, cafeteria, library, etc., is? (Maybe.) Stop the clock when the sights of the rifle are on the violator. (Did the officer have a hand-held or weapon-mounted flashlight to find the suspect?)

Best-Case Scenario

Document the start location, the exact response time and the training points or lessons learned. Depending on how seriously the officer takes the drill, certain signs of stress can show up, i.e., loss of finger dexterity. We learn things from intense, realistic training that we don’t learn any other way. Remember all the normal readiness drills, i.e., can’t find the mags for the rifle, or they are empty, batteries are dead on the optics, batteries are dead on the flashlight.

Also, document all of the “best case” circumstances…no traffic, all the traffic got out of your way, sunny day and dry roads, no kids in the school, immediate 9-1-1 call with clear information, suspect remained in the same location, no breaching was necessary, no waiting for second or third unit to respond, no children grabbing at you to protect them, no injured to step over or around, no floodgate of teachers and children coming at you while you are trying to go the other way, the 9-1-1 call did not jump a cell tower to end up in another police jurisdiction.

Hard Data

Now you have hard data from which to draw conclusions based on your specific scenarios with your officers and your vehicles and weapons. From those conclusions, you can make all sorts of changes in training, policy and equipment. Some of the obvious ones involve rifle or shotgun access. If you need a long gun, you need it NOW. It should not be buried in the trunk. And all weapons, including handguns, need lights.

Another little equipment issue is the trunk release switch itself. If you can’t pop the trunk while the car is still in gear, have your fleet maintenance guys override that. Different makes of police car, and even different years of the same make, have different trunk release interlocks. The Ford CVPI trunks generally open any time the release is pushed, regardless of gear selection. The Charger and Impala trunks generally require the gear selector to be in park.

The city departments have the frustration of traffic lights and confused drivers. Those in rural departments using SUVs and pickup trucks will have a frustration of their own: top speeds of 100 mph. In our 5.5-mile run to the local high school, the difference in top speed alone between the 100 mph SUVs and 125 mph sedans was 32 seconds. And another person gets shot every 15 seconds.

Other Training Opportunities

Because we follow a “first officer makes entry” tactic, this gave us a chance to train the other units that arrived after the first officer entered. In 30-second intervals, arriving officers were deployed, but with a twist. Each additional officer had different and more accurate suspect location intel than the one who entered before him. Each knew where the other officers were headed, hooked up with them, and went to find the suspect in an increasingly effective formation. Every patrol officer on the department did the full drill, from 9-1-1 call to engaging the suspect. Every reserve officer on the department did the short drill, i.e., entered at 30-second intervals.

So just how fast did our officers make the 5.5-mile run? E-mail me, identify yourself and I’ll tell you. Send me your times. We’ll keep a tally.

The Lessons Learned

The problem is a very short timeline of violence. The solution starts with active shooter training, proper breaching tools, and effective long guns. The solution continues by increasing the probability that we will be 1) close to the scene and 2) armed.

The successful active shooter incidents have been the result of having an officer with the active shooter mindset at or near the scene. So, increase the chances of having just that. By policy, have patrol officers do their reports from their vehicles somewhere near the schools or problematic workplaces. They will be close at hand, if dispatched, and will probably already see and hear the incident before the radio call. If nothing else, this may “displace” the active shooter. Randomly walk into the school to talk to administrators and at least find your way to the library, cafeteria, gym and principal’s office.

Another lesson learned is to require all off-duty officers to be armed. Yes, this is a hassle. Yes, this raises many policy and training issues. But yet, this has also been the reason for the few active shooter successes.

Finally, and what got the whole exercise started with my department, educate the educators in the reality of an active shooter response. The school admin must know that the outcome of the first few minutes of the incident are up to them. You will be there, en masse and armed to the teeth in 5 to 7 minutes. (Show them your response drill time sheets.) Statistically speaking, the shooting will be over in 4 minutes.

Convince them to restrict access to students by a mandatory lockdown policy. Persuade them to put locks on some doors. Persuade them to control access to the building (every single door) during the day. Persuade them to prohibit wedging outside doors open. In the final analysis, it may become clear that an armed SRO is the real life-and-death part of the active shooter response in the first 3 or 4 minutes.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2008

Rating : 9.7

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