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Departments : The Winning Edge

Rethinking Active Shooter Response

Every second counts when a madman is looking to kill as many people as possible.

February 25, 2013  |  by J.D. Lightfoot

Photo: Bryan McKean
Photo: Bryan McKean

Not since 9/11 has any one criminal incident shaken the American people like the Newtown, Conn., massacre of elementary school students and their teachers at Sandy Hook School. Consequently, the threat of active shooters is on the minds of both the public and law enforcement. And perhaps now that so many people in law enforcement and the public are looking for ways to prevent active shooter attacks, it's time to rethink the way that we respond to these attacks.

When I first became a police officer, I viewed responding to an active shooter event, especially at a school, as the most stressful and significant thing that I would ever possibly experience. I spent hours researching the subject as a whole by researching previous events, both in the U.S. and abroad.

After I became an instructor for my department, I expanded my research by polling officers and agencies from across the country. I have also had the privilege of attending some great training offered by some very reputable trainers and training groups.

Based on my research and training, I am of the opinion that the standard "quad," four-officer response is not only ineffective, but impractical. In fact, the only incident I know of where an attacker was stopped by a four-officer or more team response was the 2003 incident at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

In all of the incidents I have researched, once the shooters were confronted by an armed response, no other innocents were killed. In each of these incidents, with the exception once again of the Case Western Reserve University shooting, the initial armed response met by the attacker consisted of one or two officers or civilians.

That's why my agency started with a two-officer response when it created its active shooter response program. In addition, the training encourages any officer who is willing to go in solo to do so. The single-officer response that ended the 2009 Carthage, N.C., nursing home shooting and the reaction by a single, off-duty officer that helped stop the 2007 Salt Lake City Trolley Square Mall shooting are excellent examples of how one officer can make a very big difference.

The Sacrifice Question

Since my agency has started this training, there have been three questions commonly posed by participating officers.

One of the most pressing questions that we in the law enforcement community must answer about active shooter response involves the sacrifice of officers to save endangered civilians. In other words, in an active shooter incident, are losses of police officers acceptable?

The short and long answer to this question is an emphatic no. But if that's true, how can we encourage single-officer response to such a dangerous situation? 

Despite what you might think, single-officer response is not the same as sacrificing an officer to save innocents. A single officer on scene has advantages when engaging an active shooter that tip the odds in that officer's favor.

Officer vs. Shooter

You have been trained to deal with active shooter incidents. In most cases, the active shooter is not a trained combat operative. You have been trained and you can use your training to take the fight to him and foil his plans for mass murder.

If you have received the proper training for responding to an active shooter, then you should know how to search a building for a shooter without unnecessarily exposing yourself to fire. Tactics such as corner rounding, sometimes referred to as slicing the pie, bounding, and use of cover and concealment are practical skills that we all should have and should be refining on a regular basis.

One great way to practice these techniques and tactics is in force-on-force training. Many agencies, especially those that are progressive, make force-on-force training with airsoft guns, Simunitions, or paintball guns an integral part of their regular training schedules. The benefits of this type of training are well known, and if your department doesn't provide it, then find some of this training on your own. It's the kind of experience that can really make a difference when the bullets are real.

Another advantage that you have over most active shooters is the quality of your weapons. Long guns, especially patrol rifles or carbines, have become much more prevalent in today's police arsenal. A long gun is a force multiplier that allows a trained single officer to put accurate fire into targets at greater distances than those afforded by handguns. Remember, distance favors the trained shooter.

Even your duty pistol has many inherent advantages over the usual handguns preferred by active shooters. Double-stack magazines allow you to carry enough ammunition to stay in the fight long enough to prevail. As a professional, you have probably also taken the time and effort to customize your pistol to meet your needs. Accessories like adjustable grips, night sights, laser sights, and tactical lights increase your confidence and will help you put accurate fire on a target under stress.

You are also probably better with your chosen weapon platform than the average active shooter. This not only includes accuracy with multiple shots under stress, but also reloads, transitions, and malfunction drills.

Another advantage that you can bring to a fight with an active shooter is the ability to make hits at greater distances than generally practiced on shooting ranges. Look at some of the hallways, gymnasiums, cafeterias, and parking garages in your patrol area. What is the range from one end to the other? To end an active shooter incident, you may have to make a shot with a pistol at more than 75 feet or with a rifle at more than 150 feet. So practice shooting at these distances.

Your body armor may also make the difference in a confrontation with an active shooter. And hopefully the bad guy won't have armor, although in recent incidents, active shooters have worn both ballistic vests and helmets. If you encounter an armored shooter, you will have to change your approach to targeting. Shoot where he doesn't have protection. One really strong target is the hip. Hardly anyone thinks to protect it; it's a substantial target, almost as big as center mass; and hip and pelvic wounds are extremely painful and capable of incapacitating a threat.

Finally, the biggest advantage you have over the bad guy is that you can call for backup and other cops are on the way to help you. No one is coming to help him. Yes, there could be more than one shooter, but the cavalry is coming to help you. Backup will be arriving on scene, and it will consist of trained, highly motivated officers who are ready, willing, and able to help you. You may have gone after the shooter alone, but you won't be alone for long.

The Cost of Waiting

One question that all officers have to answer for themselves is how long will they wait for backup before engaging an active shooter.

I believe the answer to this question is: However long it takes me to get my rifle and my go-bag out of my trunk.

During an active shooter incident, you are dealing with a very brutal equation: Time taken by first responders equals casualties. One of the largest body counts from an active shooting incident so far is the Virginia Tech University incident of 2007. Depending on which after-action report you read, the attacker shot an average of eight people and killed two every minute. We have to get in quickly and end the killing.

Friendly Fire

One of the most important questions I have been asked by a student during active shooter training is about the potential for blue-on-blue casualties. If first responders are going into the same building at different intervals, and even different entry points, don't we have to be worried about "friendly fire?"

Yes, friendly fire or crossfire situations are always a concern. This should be addressed in training, through both force-on-force and tactics training.

As officers, it is a given that we are responsible for every bullet that comes out of our guns. That means that we must be sure of our target, but also what's beyond it. You can't just open up on the first person who has a gun; you have to make sure that he or she is not a cop before pulling the trigger.

Knowing your target is just one aspect of having the right mindset to end an active shooter attack. You have to think like a hunter and drive toward the threat.

You also have to keep in mind that the active shooter is a hunter, too, and he is driving toward his prey. Active shooters are relentless in the pursuit of victims, and they usually don't stop until taken down by bystanders or confronted by police, which usually results in them surrendering or committing suicide.

When you think about responding to an active shooter incident, consider what you would want responding officers to do if such an incident were to happen where your children go to school or where your spouse works. Would you want that officer to wait for backup or go in after the threat?

And ask yourself what are you willing to do on your own, outside of the training provided by your agency, to ready yourself to prevail during such an incident? It's rare that any of us receives the amount of training from our agency that we want or need. Budget considerations and departmental priorities limit training, so it's up to each of us to train on our own time and on our own dime.

J.D. Lightfoot has served as a police officer in the Midwest for more than 10 years. He has worked as an active shooter/deadly force instructor for his department since 2008.

Comments (31)

Displaying 1 - 31 of 31

Steve Rothstein @ 2/27/2013 6:38 PM

I have not been through the training program, but from talking with other instructors, this is what has been taught for many years in Texas. The ALERRT training center at Texas State University teaches that the first officer waits for one officer as a backup, then the two officers go in, ignore any wounded or other victims, and find the shooter and end the attack.

Britt @ 3/1/2013 4:50 PM

Very Good Article!! My agency refers to violent incidents as ACTIVE THREAT, due to fact a edged weapon, bomb., etc can be as deadly. We train our officers to intercede if active shooting or killing is going on. We are no longer afforded the luxury of 2, 3, or 4 officers.

Andrew @ 3/2/2013 6:35 AM

I read your article and would like to respectfully disagree with one of your major points. Mainly, that the "standard, quad, four officer response is not only ineffective but impractical". I do realize the need for immediate intervention. I do realize many departments are not able to get large numbers of officers to the scene quickly. But there are departments that can. The four officer response offers numerous advantages and should not be "thrown out". Rather, all responses should be taught and applied where applicable.

Rick @ 3/5/2013 2:50 PM

Joe Biden says that Ar-15's are hard to aim and double barrel shotguns are a better defensive weapon! HA. At any rate, an armed LEO takes 5 minutes to get to the scene; an armed citizen that's already present only takes 5 seconds to deploy their weapon and start putting rounds on the shooter. Support national reciprocity of CCW! and thugs will start thinking twice before going active.

BRUCE @ 3/5/2013 2:52 PM

When Active Shooter classes first started I brought up to our Dept trainers questions about the four man team since that would have been my whole shift. I asked about why we were waiting and why we were walking right down the middle of the hallway. I suggested loan officer assault. I was told I was just being difficult and to do it the way they were teaching. We forget police training and tactics need to always be evolving.

pup @ 3/5/2013 3:52 PM

Interesting article with pros and cons to each of the points. Each department has their own ideas how to defend an active shooter situation. The shootings do not only occur at schools, but offices, malls and entertainment locations. As I'm still an active member of our department, and as an active shooter instructor, we made changes since the early 90's. We started with the quad formation, but now we allow the first responder to make the decision. We train from a lone deputy up to a quad team. As most of us have learned, most shootings are over prior to our arrival. Shootings last maybe 4-7 minutes after the first shot. This discussion can go on and on, but the bottom line is LEO needs to intervene ASAP especially, if the shooter is actively taking innocent lives. The question we need to ask ourself, what would I do if my family was inside the location and the suspect is actively killing people? A tougher question would be what should I do if my family isn't involved in the situation? The best we can do is to remember "Training, Mindset and Tactics" equals "The Dynamics of Making a Split Second Decision". Be safe and God Bless!!

Scotty @ 3/5/2013 5:18 PM

I agree with Andrew. While I also agree that we shouldn't wait for a quad of officers, there is no evidence that a quad is ineffective. Actually, if only one case was found involving a quad and it was a success, you could say that the quad is 100% effective! Impractical is true in many cases, but if you happen to have four SWAT officers riding home from training when an active shooter incident goes down, would you recommend they not form a s(quad) and go in? I hope not. Overall good article though.

Mig @ 3/5/2013 8:06 PM

I direct your attention to the situation in Portland, OR last December - three days before Sandy Hook. A shooter walked into the Clackamas Mall with an AR15 and fired sixty shots, killing two.

He was then confronted by a single armed civilian with a carry permit and a Glock. The civilian - worried about his legal exposure - didn't fire. But the shooter's fantasy was broken; he retreated into a store and killed himself.

Response is not just for cops anymore.

Jim @ 3/5/2013 9:39 PM

Thank you J.D. Lightfoot
It's good to hear of developement to effectively deal with this problem. I don't think we can rely on the politicians to solve any significant part of this issue.

Crash @ 3/6/2013 5:11 AM

I am an advocate for the 2nd Amendment, but what concerns me is that police officers put in months in academies, annual firearm training, decision based training, use of force training, etc. in order to care weapons in our society. Yet all the ccw advocates are jumping on this active shooter incident bandwagon. My state does not allow concealed carry in schools, so there is one venue for the citizen intervention fanatasy lost. I think there is a huge leap from a person being eligible to carry concealed to actually being prepared for all this entails. I teach active shooter training to teachers, and they ask about being armed. No one thinks about weapon retention, liability, proficiency, or decision based training. All issues that should be addressed before people wander out into the world thinking they are going to intervene and be hero's.

FireCop @ 3/6/2013 5:21 AM

There is no perfect answer for these situations. Offering training and including all agencies who would respond to that situation is the key. This is a low frequency, high risk incident and if all of us fail to plan and train it won't matter what the incident is or where it happens, we'll be up the creek without a paddle. Stay safe.

Arby @ 3/6/2013 6:24 AM

There is no single solution to this multi-faceted issue. From the preventive view we need to better recognize and intervene in cases involving the mentally ill. The idea of arming teachers presents issues like mentioned above and here's just one more - how many plain-clothes officers are shot by uniformed officers when they don't follow the uniformed officer's commands and how much more likely would that be for an armed teacher? Magazine capacity? Just bring more mags. We're looking at the trying to solve the problem from the wrong end. Get better control of the criminals and the mentally ill before you work on trying to control the general, law-abiding population. Something does need to be done but not in a knee-jerk reaction just to say we did something. If we think it through, we can do this - a step here, a step there and all steps planned so they eventually merge into one wide path. Maybe it won't be completely solved because nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently motivated fool, but if we put our minds to it, we can make a noticeable, positive difference. Be safe...

jobe @ 3/6/2013 6:40 AM

I think running into a gunfight by yourself is not the best option. The sensory overload that solo officer will have due to blood, dead bodies, screaming, fire alarms, smoke, turned over desks, etc is going to impact his effectiveness.

I've trained force on force as the shooter - without setting up ambushes or "gotcha" scenarios. From my experience, I would never allow one guy to go in alone since 4 man teams had a hard enough time hitting a single walking shooter. Not to mention, the teams all stood stationary point shoulder trying to take a shot instead of advancing themselves.

Our firearms training is deplorable to begin with, but that active shooter training solidified how bad it really is.

I recommend that you always wait for at least 1 guy as backup, but we teach that the first guy there CAN go in by himself. With my town's response time, we will have 3-4 guys on scene in under 2 minutes. It's a luxury I have, and probably doesn't apply to those guys responsible for 100 square miles all by themselves.

jobe @ 3/6/2013 6:41 AM

I think running into a gunfight by yourself is not the best option. The sensory overload that solo officer will have due to blood, dead bodies, screaming, fire alarms, smoke, turned over desks, etc is going to impact his effectiveness.

I've trained force on force as the shooter - without setting up ambushes or "gotcha" scenarios. From my experience, I would never allow one guy to go in alone since 4 man teams had a hard enough time hitting a single walking shooter. Not to mention, the teams all stood stationary point shoulder trying to take a shot instead of advancing themselves.

Our firearms training is deplorable to begin with, but that active shooter training solidified how bad it really is.

I recommend that you always wait for at least 1 guy as backup, but we teach that the first guy there CAN go in by himself. With my town's response time, we will have 3-4 guys on scene in under 2 minutes. It's a luxury I have, and probably doesn't apply to those guys responsible for 100 square miles all by themselves.

Lt Dan @ 3/6/2013 7:04 AM

This is an interesting article but it is written for the 5%r. I live in a world where you must consider the least common denominator.

School shootings generally happen on day shift. Veteran officers work day shift. They spend their days on their heels not their toes.

Prevention, target hardening, and displacement cannot be overlooked.

A team of two can work but is in peril if the shooter is location aware and the officers are not. . One officer, in my opinion, is a bad and hazardous choice.

Lt Dan @ 3/6/2013 7:05 AM

This is an interesting article but it is written for the 5%r. I live in a world where you must consider the least common denominator.

School shootings generally happen on day shift. Veteran officers work day shift. They spend their days on their heels not their toes.

Prevention, target hardening, and displacement cannot be overlooked.

A team of two can work but is in peril if the shooter is location aware and the officers are not. . One officer, in my opinion, is a bad and hazardous choice.

pup @ 3/6/2013 9:59 AM

Jobe> Sir, I understand your thoughts. Although, we must take in consideration the experience of the LEO. We all wear a badge and carry a gun. While many will run away, there are others who will do what it takes to save lives, especially if small children are involved. Many agencies have short ETA's. However, even if waiting for two minutes, how many lives can be lost. Right or wrong, and hearing the sound of gunfire, the LEO has to make a decision and live with it. My thoughts, if I went in alone and lost my life trying to illiminate the shooter (which I wouldn't allow happen) at least the threat was taken away from the innocent to myself. In doing so, I may have saved a few innocent lives. It's a tough decision for all of us to make. Upon going in doesn't always mean you will comfront the suspect. You can at least start the ball rolling with information.
As I said, we have to live with the decision we make. Just my opinion.

Ron @ 3/6/2013 10:33 AM

Great article. There is a new dynamic being discussed as well. If a perp enters a school with a firearm, what do we think he is there to do? Most of us would answer "kill people". If the most common L.E. response to this question is "kill people", then why do we wait for the first rounds to be fired before we enter? Ponder that for a moment!

Jim A @ 3/6/2013 4:52 PM

So, if a one officer response is a "bad and hazardous response", do we allow the shooting to continue? I am sitting in my office right now, looking at all the other guys on my shift. Wait. THERE ARE NO OTHER GUYS ON MY SHIFT!

There is only one rule. Stay as safe as you can during ANY response.

Therefore, If you are alone, respond alone. Do your job alone.

Jim B. @ 3/7/2013 7:59 AM

OK, does anyone out there really think the author is saying DON'T go in with a four person team if you have it, that going in solo is better? No, obviously, if you have 4 or 2 or 12 officers that either all arrive at the same time or were traveling together, go in together. What he is advocating for is not standing around waiting to get four officers together while you hear shots coming from the building. Or at least be aware of the consequences of waiting. Let's not pick nits here guys. Of course, the more officers you have to assault an active shooter, the better. But understand that each moment that you wait, an innocent might be (probably is) dying. Jobe, you talk about having 3 to 4 guys on scene in under 2 minutes. That's great! And for all the officers who work in jurisdictions where that is applicable, awesome! However many of us don't. And even if you do, remember what he said about the Virginia Tech shooting, 8 shot/2 killed p/minute, that's four dead in that two minutes your waiting for backup. Maybe it won't be that high or maybe it will be much higher (how many times can you pull the trigger in two minutes?).
I'm not trying to guilt or shame anybody into acting alone or criticize anyone for making a different decision than I would. Just recognize that just as there are consequences for acting on your own, there are consequences for inaction, even momentary inaction, as well. Each of us has to decide what choices we are prepared to live (or die) with.

derek @ 3/7/2013 2:22 PM

I teach active shooter. The average officer will shoot civilians. out of fear and lack of target threat training. also, pistols wont win a gun fight over 10yds.

Jim B. @ 3/8/2013 7:14 AM

Derek: #1. What are you basing that assertion on? #2. Who said anything about responding to an active shooter with just a pistol? #3. Officers can and do win gunfights with pistols at greater than 10 yards although I'm pretty sure just about everyone would rather have a long gun. #4. Assuming your first statement is correct, what do you suggest the response to an active shooter should be? You seem to be implying that a cop running toward the sound of gunfire is a greater threat than the active shooter.

jobe @ 3/8/2013 2:24 PM

@Jim: Derek probably had the same experience I did with ill-trained patrol officers shooting whatever moved instead of recognizing and shooting at the actual threat. From my experience, the regular street cops were not able to hit the shooter until the shooter closed to within 10 feet or less.

I'll reiterate that I believe sending your average patrol officer alone into that type of scenario is not your best option, but it should be up to that individual officer to make that choice. Inaction for a few minutes will cost innocent lives. But rushing in with guns blazing is also going to cost innocent lives, possibly the cop's life, and also give the shooter a chance to obtain another weapon if the cop goes down.

It is a no-win scenario no matter what you do. There are going to be dead people, but I'd rather have exponentially better chances of success by waiting the extra minute for backup.

kckiss3101 @ 3/24/2013 5:21 PM

My main concern is that MOST Police Officers do not train regularly at any distance other than what is required during requal. Most Police Officers are not proficient with their firearms. There are few of us that train regularly from 25yd,50yd or further with our handguns most only train when required. There are those of us that are looked upon as weirdos when we make 100 yd headshots with our handguns and are proud of it. Fewer would be able to take the shot at distance under stress.

Dean @ 4/2/2013 4:46 PM

you should see what Las Vegas Metro is doing!!

Matt @ 4/6/2013 5:43 AM

If you are only taking the State POST acadamy active shooter training (4 officer diamond formation) or the ALERRT trianing (wait for 2), your seriously lacking in the cutting edge at this time.

Look at the Single Officer Response training "Lone Wolf," MACTAC (Vegas Metro/LAPD) and the ultimate, DARC's LECTC.

Mike @ 6/21/2013 7:49 AM

As a former LEO and now a manager in the private sector I'm responsible for a rather large employee population in which we have domestic situations as well as current and former employees and unrelated 3rd party risks. I started LE in 1981 and the thought of waiting for back-up while victims were being killed, particulalry children, wasn't even considered. I believe, that policy or not, many LEOs today would enter alone and do their best to save lives. Decisions regarding policies and procedures made by those sitting at a desk isn't always in the best interest of those served. Cops are protectors; trained, experienced, level headed, and aggressive when need be. It's the typical personality make up that makes a cop. The author hit the nail on the head in many regards... equipment, training, experience, going against a relatively untrained, mentally unstable coward. Single office response should be the focus of training and expectation, back up is on the way. Waiting two minutes helps no one but the shooter.

Dale @ 12/13/2013 7:52 AM

I have to disagree with some of the numbers here. In most active shooter incidents several people die per minute. Waiting two minutes for back up, will probably result in at least five if not ten more innocents dieing. That is a lot of death just so you don't have to enter alone. The key is training. train as often as possible, get good training to begin with. Then train some more. When that call comes in that somebody is killing kids in the local high school there will be no more time for training. Ask yourself this. If you are the first person there, how many will die before your backup gets there? Everybody should be trained to enter alone if necessary. Two person teams is probably the best you will get. SO train to enter with two.

J. Guerrier @ 2/6/2014 1:25 AM

I think the one thing that gets missed in most of these discussions that I read is what the intention of the solo officer should be. When I hear people say that a single officer with guns a blazing is a bad idea, their missing the point. The focus of that officer should be to Contain, Distract and Neutralize if possible. Even a Solo & less than accurate or tactically skilled officer can confront and distract the Active Shooter from continued killing, which would also buy time for other innocent victims to escape as well as the arrival of additional officer to deal with the threat.

Jeremiah kers @ 6/30/2014 3:30 PM

I now have a very serious question for the law enforcement community in general. What will happen when these relatively untrained quasi competent shooters turn out to be a team of military trained battle tested gi's. Are there any good schools that deal with an equally trained Opfor?

Susan Carroll @ 9/28/2014 11:14 AM

As a civilian, I respectfully ask you these questions. What is the criteria by which an incident qualifies for "active shooter status"? What safeguards are in place for the public? How does an officer determine that someone is not just "open carrying"? Are officers really taught to shoot on sight with no or little time used to assess the threat? Are officers taught methods to diffuse the situation before opening fire? Please explain these things in a way a civilian can understand. Thank you.

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