With the school year barely begun, there has already been another school shooting to report. This time, at South High School in Willoughby, Ohio. Fortunately, this time, no one was shot. However, the close call sent shockwaves of fear throughout this suburban Cleveland community.

I doubt this latest school shooting received more than brief news coverage because no one was injured or killed—this time. I happened to be in Cleveland at the time of the shooting, and it dominated the local news.

This shooting could have easily been tragic, and could have happened in any school in America. A 15-year-old student walked into school with a loaded .40 caliber handgun, with 30+ rounds – intending to kill himself. But first, he decided to fire two rounds in a school hallway. One bullet shattered a trophy case; the other was embedded into the ceiling.

Police were called, and two school administrators managed to talk the 15-year-old out of killing himself with the pistol he held to his head. Police arrived and took him into custody, eventually transporting him to a hospital for observation.

The school went into immediate lockdown, with police conducting a room-by-room search of the entire school and escorting students to a designated meeting spot at the school ball field. Word of the shooting instantly spread throughout the school, followed by students with cell phones notifying parents, friends, etc. Parents raced to the school to pick up their sons and daughters. While orderly, fear was the predictable reaction by students, parents, and the entire community.

Last week, at the TREXPO East conference/expo in Chantilly, Va., I sat in on three of the four Active Shooter track courses. As I watched the widespread news coverage of the Willoughby shooting, I realized just how far we've come with regard to active school shootings. Of course, the fact that there were no casualties helped keep the panic potential to a lower rung.

I flashed back to the Active Shooter courses I'd attended recently, and the multi-tiered LE response strategy that includes working in unison with the schools. I realized the orderly response of what I was witnessing was a direct result of nearly 10 years of LE focusing on active shooters. Instead of chaos and panic, the hallmark of today's response is coordinated calming at all levels, which is highly effective and still evolving, especially within law enforcement. This is proof of what can happen when everyone works together to find solutions to daunting crime challenges.

Prior to Columbine, most of today's active shooter tactics would have been immediately shot down throughout LE. The very idea of a single police officer engaging an active shooter was unthinkable. Back then, the accepted protocol was surround and wait for SWAT to handle it. As a SWAT sergeant, this was a tactic I admit I endorsed.

However, history has proven that time is of the essence, and while I don't know how long exactly it took police to enter South High in Willoughby, I'm betting it was immediate and multi-tiered.

Back to TREXPO East and the Active Shooter classes I attended. The common thread was multi-tiered response – beginning with the first officer on scene (often an SRO), followed by responding officers, and finally by SWAT. This multi-tiered system turns time into an ally, instead of an enemy—because the clock is most definitely ticking. BC (Before Columbine), any thought of a single officer engaging any active shooter was considered completely foreign.

Each instructor provided their unique, but similar, tactical recommendations – ranging from the original Quad (diamond) formation, to the Triad, to SWAT's role, and finally to the very first responding officer on scene – almost always Patrol or SRO. The idea of upgrading the capabilities of every officer, while certainly not new, is perhaps the most valuable feature of the Rapid Deployment to Active Shooter strategy.

Today's first responders are far better trained, equipped, and armed than only 10 years ago. Some SROs are now being issued ballistic shields, and while watching the Willoughby incident I couldn't help but notice the numerous .223 rifles deployed at the ready.

Although patrol most likely handled most of this incident, I suspect SWAT was deployed to help with the search aspect. Now, patrol and SWAT are working solidly together as one team, at least in many locations in the U.S. and Canada, to ensure a winning outcome for the good guys and the citizens we protect.

At first glance, SWAT might appear to be out of the loop when it comes to Active Shooter response. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Part-time SWAT officers are often among the first responders, and SWAT should always be notified and activated, if for no other reason than to finish the job and, more importantly, work together with first responders.

Active shooters provide a glimpse into the future of LE, and the question for SWAT is, Will we be ready for what's coming next? The answer is up to you.


Robert O'Brien
Robert O'Brien

Robert O'Brien

A member of the TREXPO Advisory Board, Sgt. Robert "Bob" O'Brien Cleveland SWAT Ret. is the founder of the R.J. O'Brien Group Ltd., a law enforcement training and consulting service that advises and trains a number of local, state, and federal SWAT teams.

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A member of the TREXPO Advisory Board, Sgt. Robert "Bob" O'Brien Cleveland SWAT Ret. is the founder of the R.J. O'Brien Group Ltd., a law enforcement training and consulting service that advises and trains a number of local, state, and federal SWAT teams.

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