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Handling the Active Shooter Threat

An active shooter incident is no longer a rare or even unforeseeable event. Such incidents are causing police agencies to re-examine and evaluate the considerations and the appropriate strategies pertinent not only to the immediate response to such incidents, but also in the steps necessary to contain, control and perhaps even prevent such incidents. Such pre-planning goes beyond an agency’s action, and now must include both the responses of individuals (such as officers first to the scene) and ‘stakeholders’ (those whose sites are affected). 

In light of that magnitude, the 61st Annual Meeting of ASIS (the world’s leading security professionals’ organization) presented panel discussions about facts and emerging strategies in active shooter response. Among the panelists were Kevin T. Doss, CPP, President and CEO of Level 4 Security LLC; C. David Shepherd, CEO of the Readiness Resource Group; and Paul Timm, PSP, President of RETA Security, Inc.    

Active Shooter incidents require immediate, swift deployment of resources in order to minimize death and injury, and to work toward equally immediate and swift resolution. But such speed often means the first officers and supervisors on the scene must be ready to make appropriate decisions, despite initial or continuing confusion or even revulsion that could lead to overreaction, or unsatisfactory or unsuitable reaction. 

Thus, preparation and response protocols must include a thorough review of, and perhaps revisions, to the current training officers receive for active shooter response. It is quite possible that single officer at the scene will be the one who gains control or who defuses a situation, so each officer must be trained and ready.

The ‘stakeholders’ are those who are adversely affected by the active shooter incident, and police pre-planning requires collaboration with those stakeholders. Police agencies cannot work in a vacuum, but must take into account the work to be done with the community in exploring and planning responses and readiness. 

Discussions must include knowing the physical setting, on-site conditions, resources and personnel available, sites of possible shelter or barricade, and other factors at the physical site that could be places where an active shooter incident could occur. Generalities won’t do. There must be study of resources that can help—what is available or what can be used such as keys, a ram, tools, sledgehammers, prybars, axes, bolt cutters, or perhaps even a means of breach for steel doors or frames, or doors that open outward. 

Statistics from incidents from 2000-2013 indicate that active shooter incidents involved a male shooter 96 percent of the time, generally aged 21-50 years old. The shooter acted alone 98 percent of the time, with the shooter traversing more than one location about 15 percent of the time. About 60 percent of the suspects used a pistol, 27 percent used a rifle, and 10 percent used a shotgun.

While immediate and swift response and control are the goals of law enforcement, in about 66 percent of cases, the incident was over before police arrived. The shooting duration averaged 1 to 5 minutes in 69 percent of the cases, with 14 percent ending in two minutes or less, and 55 percent ending within two to five minutes. In 15 percent of incidents, the perpetrator fled the scene before law enforcement arrived.

In 28 percent of the incidents, the perpetrator exchanged gunfire with law enforcement, with the following outcomes: 40 percent ending in the suicide of the perpetrator; 3 percent resulting in the death of the perpetrator killed by persons not of law enforcement; 10 percent resulting in the perpetrator’s death by law enforcement; and 13 percent resulting in restraining the perpetrator.  In 46 percent of the cases, there were casualties to law enforcement (killed or wounded). 

In the commercial sector, businesses must work with law enforcement and security to protect their premises, workers and visitors through prevention, control and response. Preparations must also be made for dealing with multiple casualties, and the later work of coping with the aftermath and the future recovery of the business.

For the school setting, the ASIS panelists cited The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative which reported that, in active shooter situations, the perpetrator was a student in 95 percent of the incidents and a male in 100 percent of the cases. In 81 percent of the incidents, he acted alone, and, in 76 percent of cases, he had only a single weapon. 

A teacher or administrator was the target in 54 percent of the cases, and 17 percent of those personnel had been threatened before the attack. Others such as siblings or fellow students knew about the impending attack in 81 percent of the cases, and, in 44 percent of the incidents, the perpetrator had actually been encouraged or dared by others to carry out the attack. 

Of the males themselves, it was found that 93 percent had planned the attack in advance; 59 percent engaged in violent movies, games and books; 24 percent had a history of drug or alcohol use; 63 percent came from two-parent families; 41 percent were doing well in school; 12 percent had no close friends, 27 percent had a prior history of arrests; 34 percent had undergone mental health evaluation; and 71 percent reported feeling bullied or had been threatened or attacked. 

Timm pointed out that law enforcement response to any active shooter incidents has moved from stabilization to immediate action strategies. Again, that translates to careful examination of training and police procedures that will be the most useful and timely in an active shooter setting. 

Officers must know what to do to handle such situations, but another key is that supervisors and watch commanders must have the know-how to decide if and when authority can be given to the first officers on the scene, if applicable to tactics or even negotiations. More than likely, the SWAT team will arrive after those first officers. Delays in the process of decision-making, or waiting for a decision-maker to arrive might prove disastrous to some situations.   

Events unfold in real time and their concomitant developments in circumstances and information all play a role in determining who the suspect is, isolating him, neutralizing the situation, or defusing it. Tactics might involve disruption, distraction or incapacitation. Once again, training is key for these various developments and the decisions that must be made while a situation unfolds.   

As an example, Timm discussed procedures for educators and students, which now usually go farther beyond the ‘lockdown’ or the ‘return to your homeroom’ responses. The ALICE formula of Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate may be appropriate, but so might ‘run, hide, fight,’ or perhaps other finer-tuned solutions appropriate to settings involving very young students, disabled students, portable classrooms, an athletic field or game, a lunch room, or a schoolyard of students in a fire drill, at recess, or at physical education class. 

Clearly, many alternatives must be addressed—returning to the office or homeroom, sheltering in place, getting to safety, hiding, and so on. With the school as one of the community’s ‘stakeholders,’ plans and procedures must be discussed and considered including the obvious, but perhaps easily overlooked, procedures of having written directions on all phones about how to contact 911, the school office and another room, and having not just administrators but everyone involved—teachers, aides, volunteers, cooks, custodians, gardeners or anyone else regularly on the campus who must know the emergency procedures. 

Since social media is so much a part of older students’ lives, they must learn to report threats, even those made in jest or as mock threats, but educators must learn how to review such information, and consider the decisions needed for taking appropriate action.

Regardless of the setting—commercial, government, school, church, etc.—there must be preparation for the contingency of an active shooter situation. Such preparation is key and must begin with the understanding that such incidents are foreseeable. Surroundings must be examined and scouted for hiding places, escape routes, and reunification sites. There must be situational awareness of suspicious activity—listening or observing for something out of the ordinary or odd.

There must be a process, in which all are trained, for how to report suspicious behavior, and how to encourage such reporting because some people may feel afraid to report something for fear of being mistaken or suffering repercussion from a co-worker or supervisor. Even the seemingly simple measures must be planned such as throw kits for first aid and wound care to lower the casualty rate. 

Planning must also consider those who are merely visitors, tourists, conference attendees, contractors, new workers, or family members at the site, but who have no knowledge of the response and evacuation processes that on-site personnel have learned. Typically, these guests will be passive, looking for guidance from those who are actually a part of the setting.  

The panelists pointed out that responses to an active shooter situation will vary with distance to the shooter, location in relation to the shooter, mental and physical ability or disability, time to react, the distance/time for arrival of help, and so on. Such variables are just that—variable. A survival mindset is necessary, in which the persons must be aware of the situation, know how to maximize their survival chances through effective actions, and mentally and physically practice the plan to reduce response time and build personal confidence in the survivability of an incident.  

Reactions can be many—run, evacuate, leave the immediate area, escape, hide, take shelter, barricade, fight, resist, and so on. An individual alone may react quite differently than someone in a group. An individual may be more difficult to find if alone. A group can take concerted action, attacking from multiple angles or with multiple thrown objects—water bottles, backpacks, books, cans, tools, furniture, etc. 

One message is clear. An Active Shooter event is foreseeable. There is no ‘tomorrow’ in which to start plans. Now is the time to prepare.


Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security.


Published in Law and Order, Sep 2016

Rating : 10.0

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