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Jumping into the Fire

San Diego PD's active shooter program teaches officers how to enter the kill zone and save lives.

October 01, 2002  |  by Dave Douglas

For the past 20 or so years the operational philosophy of most American law enforcement agencies has been highly conservative with regard to officer-suspect confrontations. This has been especially true when such incidents have involved innocent bystanders or hostages.

Law enforcement strategists once believed that time was on the side of the responding officers in such incidents. We could wait out the situation. We could just bide our time until the suspect sobered up, got tired or hungry, or just came to his or her senses. Our job as first responders was to establish a perimeter, evacuate the public around the scene, call for the tactical team and the negotiators. And wait.

But that changed on April 20, 1999, the day two students at Columbine High School in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., made a concerted effort to kill all of their classmates and teachers.

At Columbine, the officers, deputies, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel did an incredible job in their response to an unbelievably bad situation. But through no fault of their own, the tactics they were trained to use were not suited to the nature of the incident.

Did that strategic flaw lend itself to a greater body count for teen killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold? It's hard to say. What is known is that Harris and Klebold killed 13 and injured 22. And regardless of tactics, the casualty figure would be much higher without the courage and skills of the responding public safety and emergency personnel.

And some good has come out of the tragedy. Since Columbine, law enforcement nationwide has developed "new" operational philosophies to cope with the "active shooter" incident.

The communities we serve have spoken and what they have told us is that they have an expectation of their law enforcement officers to take immediate action to neutralize active shooters and rescue victims. This change in operational philosophy represents the most abrupt paradigm shift I've seen in policing during the last 20 years.

Taking Action

The San Diego Police Department, where I work in the in-services training division, has developed a special program called "Field Response to an Active Shooter Situation," and all of the agency's 2,500 sworn officers are required to complete the course.

Many officers are usually less than enthusiastic about such mandated training programs, but the initial student evaluations for this program have been glowing. One typical comment that we have received reads, "It's about time we were allowed to do what we became cops for in the first place."

Here's a look at some of the most important aspects of the San Diego PD's active shooter response training program.

In an active shooter incident, patrol officers will likely be the first law enforcement to arrive at the scene. This is true in almost all shooting or hostage incidents, but in this "new" operational philosophy, first responders will not be expected to call for SWAT and wait until the team arrives. If immediate intervention is appropriate, the expectation is for the first responders to take action.

But it's important to understand that the decision for the first responding officers to act must be accompanied by a reasonable likelihood of success. No one expects you to undertake a suicide mission. If the active shooter(s) is using fully automatic weapons, armor piercing rounds, and wearing body armor, no one in his or her right mind would march right in with just a 9mm Glock at port arms and expect to come out in one piece.

That said, however, you do have to jump into this fire. And doing so without sound planning and strong tactical awareness could lead to increased police and civilian casualties. Your primary goal as a first responder at an active shooter incident is to save as many lives as possible. And the way you achieve that goal is by locating, isolating, apprehending, or eliminating the threat.

Success or failure at an active shooter incident is determined by advance planning. Your agency needs to train each officer to play a role in eliminating/apprehending the bad guys, or assisting in the rescue of the victims. And these roles and the duties involved should be well understood before an active shooter incident occurs.

Contact Teams

Eliminating/apprehending the bad guys is the job of what the San Diego PD calls a "contact team." The mission of the contact team officers is to align themselves in a formation that is tactically sound for the given circumstance and to move toward the shooter or toward the sound of gunfire.

Should the gunfire stop, the contact team will slow down and re-evaluate the situation. At that juncture, a decision must be made to continue, or to lock down the area. Also, the contact team must be flexible enough to quickly transition into a rescue or containment team, depending on how the mission evolves.

Each contact team consists of four to six officers differentiated into a leader, a point officer, flankers, grabbers, and a rear guard.

The contact team is assembled and directed by the leader. Additionally, he or she maintains radio contact with communications regarding areas that need rapid containment, areas currently being searched, suspect location, and victim location.

The contact team's leader should call up the "rescue team" to evacuate or lock down cleared areas. He or she should advise responders of the number of victims and their location. As the search progresses, the responders may need to call additional personnel for security and containment. If the situation dictates that the key is to wait, gather more information, advise of suspect(s)'s movements and location and coordinate containment, then the contact team leader must make a judgment whether to wait or to deploy.

Another key member of the contact team is the point officer. The Point Officer covers all areas ahead of the team whether it is operating in a T-formation, a diamond formation, or in search mode.

Because the point officer is most likely to make first contact with the shooter(s), he or she should be armed with a long gun such as an AR-15, MP5, Ruger PC-9, or other carbine. A shotgun is not the weapon of choice in this situation unless it is loaded with slugs and equipped with a precision aiming device.

As the contact team formation moves toward the shooter(s), the point officer should use standard building search maneuvers such as "cutting the pie" or "quick peek" tactics when entering new areas. Ambushes are likely because the shooters are expecting or even counting on police intervention.

Flankers or "searchers" cover the formation's flanks and assist the point officer while in a T-formation. These officers are responsible for making entry and searching rooms and other areas as directed by the team leader.

The flankers should be prepared to challenge and apprehend the suspect or suspects if encountered. If a suspect is encountered, it is crucial that all the officers remain in formation to provide cover and guard against a second or unknown suspect.

Another job that falls to the flankers is to debrief any apparent victims as the contact team passes to be sure they are not suspects. This intelligence must be passed to the team leader as it is gathered.

The final piece in the contact team puzzle is the "rear guard." Officers assigned to rear guard duty do exactly what the term implies. They cover all the team members from attack from behind, whether in T-formation or search mode.

Active shooting incidents are characterized by confusion and anxiety, and friendly fire accidents are a very real danger. Consequently, it's advisable to organize the contact teams using uniformed officers or easily identifiable personnel wearing brightly colored raid jackets.

If there are multiple suspects operating independently, you may need more than one contact team. This can be tricky, especially in a situation as hazardous as an active shooter incident. So be sure to coordinate the movements of the teams.

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