The crowd in Las Vegas Village the night of Oct. 1 had one thing on their minds. They were fully engaged in the performance taking place on the main stage of the Route 91 Country Music Festival. Witnesses would later recount hearing popping noises they thought were fireworks. Many thought they were part of the show. But when the bodies started falling, the remainder of the crowd came to the stark realization someone was shooting at them. Panic and survival instincts took over. People wanted to run for cover, to seek safety from the relentless stream of gunfire that was whistling through the night air, but where to run was unclear. Where were the shots coming from? Who was shooting at them? Where was safety?
Law enforcement first responders found themselves in the line of fire immediately. Still, they went about their duties, attending to the wounded, evacuating attendees, and trying to locate the shooter or shooters. Numerous reports of multiple gunmen at various locations sent resources in every direction. The volume of gunfire was terrifying for even the most seasoned of officers. The darkness only added to the problems.
Eventually, reliable reports came in locating the single shooter's position on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. SWAT officers were able to get there and set about securing the safety of those trapped in surrounding rooms. By now, the endless stream of gunfire had ceased. At some point, the gunman had ended his horrible rampage with a self-inflicted gunshot. Entering the room, the officers were confronted with the evidence of a well-planned and executed killing mission. Two broken windows provided the gunman shooting ports to the area around the hotel. Nearly two dozen guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition were scattered everywhere. His weaponry included a number of high-powered rifles, specially modified to fire hundreds of rounds per minute.
He had built shooting platforms, and notes were found, which turned out to be essentially range cards, with ballistic calculations for his anticipated targets below.
With the attack over, it was time to tend to the hundreds of casualties, and for self-evaluation, examining the lessons learned from the experience.
Sniper Response Tactics
A criminal sniper is a person who uses sniper-related tactics to commit murder. This sets him apart from a law enforcement or military sniper. A criminal sniper incident differs from an active shooter in one significant detail. An active shooter walks among his victims, shooting them at close range. We have seen this in schools, businesses, and other public venues. In contrast, the criminal sniper mounts his attack from a position that provides him distance and concealment. Hides used by criminal snipers have taken the form of vehicles, tree lines, and hotel windows, just to name a few.
As such, the tactics used to deal with active shooter incidents have to be modified when responding to criminal snipers. In classes, the strategy taught for responding to a criminal sniper is a five-step tactical progression. Those steps are locate, isolate, identify, engage, and evaluate. Whether it was by default or the result of team training, the Las Vegas Metro personnel followed the progression perfectly.
Locate: No response can start until the source of the gunfire has been located. This information may come from callers reporting the incident, or witnesses on scene. In Las Vegas, calls came in from a large number of sources, including some from inside the Mandalay Bay Hotel, which helped officers precisely locate the shooter's position.
Isolate: Once the shooter is located, he can't be allowed to go mobile or escape. A perimeter must be set up as quickly as it can be done safely. That process started with restricting the shooter to the hotel, then to a single floor. SWAT officers took control of the 32nd floor, trapping the shooter in his suite and cutting off any possible exit strategy the shooter may have had in mind.
Identify: While knowing who the shooter is may be helpful, that information is not always available in the initial moments of the incident. But in this context, the concept of identify includes other mission-related information, like what is he shooting? Who is he shooting? Essentially, all information about the incident is important. This information will be coming from a lot of sources, but needs to be disseminated from a central collection point to all involved parties on a regular basis.
Engage: As soon as anyone on the scene can see the sniper, they need to shoot the sniper. The primary goal in responding to a criminal sniper incident is to stop the killing. If he is taking fire from law enforcement, his focus is removed from the innocents he was shooting before. This is an aggressive tactic which some in law enforcement will find difficult, but this is not the time for attempts at negotiation. Stop the killing. In the Las Vegas incident, had he still been shooting when SWAT took over the 32nd floor, they would have been in position to engage him immediately.
Evaluate: Has the problem been resolved? Has the shooting stopped and is the shooter either neutralized or in custody? If not, the law enforcement response must continue.
Preventing the Attack
Could something have been done by law enforcement to prevent the Vegas attack? Probably not. Some talking heads have been critical of the law enforcement response in Las Vegas, but few offer any realistic alternatives. Even lawyers are lining up and trying to assign blame to the police, the hotel, and the concert organizers. But these are knee-jerk reactions. There is not a simple fix to a complex scenario like this.
The shooter knew what he was going to do, where he was going to do it, and what he would need to make it happen. He brought 10 cases containing his weapons and ammunition up to his room. Since he had five days prior to the actual shooting to accomplish this, no one would have noticed him if he brought in a bag or two at a time.
Those who suggested metal detectors in hotels obviously haven't considered the logistical nightmare this would create, since nearly every bag of every guest would probably necessitate a hand search. And no amount of security at the venue site would have impacted the shooter's ability to attack from a distance.
Some have posited the use of counter-sniper teams to protect large venues and events. Again, this raises logistical questions of how many teams, where are they positioned, are they properly trained to find and react to the threat of a sniper attack? Visible sniper overwatch may serve a deterrent to some, but a determined and prepared assailant will now know what to avoid or what to attack first.
Another solution discussed is giving some patrol officers sniper-grade scoped rifles, as a supplement to their patrol rifles. The intention is to enable them to quickly respond to a sniper threat, before SWAT arrives, by matching the criminal sniper's firepower and reach.
However, exciting as that may sound, unless the agency is willing to buy the right equipment and commit to providing the additional and ongoing training necessary for these officers to be able to perform in a "designated marksman" role, they are just adding to the problem.
Using Las Vegas as an example, the shooter was situated in a hotel room, 450 yards away from the concert venue, and 32 floors above ground level. Designated marksmen would have to successfully spot his hide, work out the ballistic problems of accurate range estimation, adjust for shooting on an incline, and compensate for cross winds without being able to see any indicators in the dark. And their shots would have to be accurate because misses are going to be striking other rooms, which may be occupied by innocent guests or officers responding to the threat. How much ongoing training is necessary to give them the necessary skill and confidence to make those shots?
What Can Be Done?
Assume the next criminal sniper event is coming to your jurisdiction soon and become a student of the history of such attacks. In police work, knowing your history can help predict your future. The sniper attacks of the past all hold lessons about how they were executed and how law enforcement assets responded to them. We can see what was done, what worked, and what can be changed. I wanted to scream at my television every time a talking head said, "We've never seen anything like this before." We have, for 50 years. The things that set this incident above all others is the high-volume weaponry used, and the body count. Everything else, we've seen before.
Sniper incidents are rarely spontaneous events. The shooters have invested time, training, and preparation into their attacks. This gives them an early advantage over first responders. Having an organized and well-rehearsed counter-attack ready will take that advantage away.
Train everyone in your agency in what their jobs will be when the event happens.
Dispatchers, first responding officers, supervisors, and eventually SWAT personnel, will all play integral roles in dealing with this unique situation. Fire-Rescue and emergency medical personnel will also become involved. Your agency already has written policies detailing how to handle other mass-casualty events. It is time to write one for a criminal sniper incident, and then train the entire agency on that policy. When it happens, the response from your agency must be immediate and seamless. That efficiency only comes from training.
A criminal sniper incident is the most unusual and potentially the most dangerous call for service an agency could ever face. Prepare now. The next one may be yours.
Derrick Bartlett is a veteran of law enforcement, with more than 20 years in SWAT. As director of Snipercraft Inc., he has provided instruction for snipers and supervisors for more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. In addition to dozens of magazine articles, he is the author of several books. Bartlett is also the president of the American Sniper Association. He can be reached at [email protected]