Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Aurora. The names and locations are forever synonymous with tragedy and death—anyone who was alive at the time of these active shooter incidents will never forget them.
Despite the widespread mainstream media hype surrounding active shooter incidents—leading many people to believe that they are a common event—they are relatively rare by comparison to other shootings that take place across the country every day.
In early 2020, the FBI released a report that indicated the agency designated 28 shootings in 2019 as active shooter incidents. The FBI defines an active shooter as one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.
The report stated, “Implicit in this definition is the shooter’s use of one or more firearms. The active aspect of the definition inherently implies that both law enforcement personnel and citizens have the potential to affect the outcome of the incident based upon their responses to the situation.
So how does command staff prepare for these low-frequency/high-risk events?
Last month, one law enforcement officer with relevant real-world experience offered his insights to POLICE. The following is some of the lessons he learned as he took command of one of the more notorious active shooter incidents in recent memory—the July 2012 Aurora Theater Shooting that left 12 people dead and 70 wounded.
Rapidly Unfolding Events
Captain Jad Lanigan was a six-month probationary patrol lieutenant when a deranged individual entered the Century 16 Theater in Aurora, CO, threw tear gas into the crowd of people watching a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” Batman movie, and opened fire with an AR-15, a shotgun, and a pistol.
Lieutenant Lanigan, call sign “Lincoln 25,” was the second police officer on the scene, arriving two minutes and 42 seconds into the attack. He entered the building but soon decided that if he was going to effectively accept the role of incident commander, he needed to be outside at a hastily improvised command station.
He says that early on in the event, among the biggest challenges for the incident commander was keeping up with all the radio traffic as officers cleared the building and began providing care for the victims.
“It takes a while to wrap your head around what’s going on because the information that’s coming in is wrong. It’s fast. It’s confusing,” Lanigan says. “People see things differently. They see multiple suspects when it’s only one suspect, they see him going out of the front door when he went out the back door. And when we did all of that, when it happened, it wasn’t until probably an hour into it that I really realized the magnitude of what was going on.”
Another issue was lack of unified command in the early stages of the event.
“One of the biggest hurdles we had was that we didn’t have a unified command until unfortunately late into the incident,” Lanigan says. “Not because we weren’t asking for it, but because of logistics and the lack of training between the police department and the fire department. We had some issues we had to overcome and we have overcome them, but at the time, one of the biggest ones was the fact that we did not have a unified command.”
One of the consequences of that absence of unified command was that EMS and fire responders were unable to adequately deal with the casualties. Further complicating that matter was the fact that there simply were not enough ambulances available to deal with the high volume of people in need of being taken to an emergency room for care.
One of the police sergeants on the scene made the suggestion to Lanigan that victims be extracted and transported to local hospitals and trauma centers via police patrol vehicles. Lanigan agreed and a total of 27 of the most seriously wounded individuals were taken to the hospital in the back seat of squad cars.
One Hour In
Lanigan says that about one hour into the incident, the theaters had been cleared and most of the wounded had been attended to, so the investigation phase of the command began inearnest.
Some witnesses used the word “they” when describing the mayhem, leading Lanigan and others to search for a second shooter. They also knew that the shooter had used at least one device—the tear gas—raising the concern that there were other devices, maybe even bombs, at the scene.
Investigators began trying to figure out who was in what theater.
Lanigan says the officers on the scene had to cope with a bunch of troubling questions. Do we have any suspects in the crowd? Do we have any explosives in the crowd? Are there bombs in the parking lot? Are there bombs in his car or bombs underneath people inside the theater?
“As the incident commander, you then have to start directing different organizations or different police departments to do a variety of tasks,” Lanigan explains. “[I was giving commands like:] ‘I want you guys to start segregating the crowd out, and I want to segregate it out into theaters.’ We brought in buses—we put people on buses by the theater they were in. And then we opened up a nearby high school to start doing a reunification and interview process.”
The investigation continued long after the incident was over. The theater was locked down as a crime scene for two months. But all the hard work of the law enforcement professionals involved led to the desired result. The shooter was convicted of multiple murders and other charges, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
RTF and NIMS
Lanigan’s final words of advice for any officer who faces a similar challenge is that effective incident command is a result of preparation and training. There needs to be ongoing multi-disciplinary and multi-agency training, he says.
“The biggest part of active shooters right now, nationally is training—and training has changed so much over the years. Police officers are now expected to be casualty care people also, and to understand Rescue Task Force (RTF) protocols. So it’s not only just training in-house within the police department, but you’ve got to now learn how to start training with the fire department, EMS, hospitals, because it all plays in together.”
The RTF concept was created by the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department following a study conducted about multi-disciplinary response to mass casualty incidents, specifically active shooter events.
With RTF, police officers work in concert with other first responders to implement rapid medical care to victims. However, as Lanigan points out, effective RTF requires pre-incident training so that each group of responders is ready to coordinate with all of the others and knows their mission in detail.
In addition to RTF training, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) is useful if an incident goes on for a prolonged period of time and involves response from multiple agencies and multiple first responder disciplines (police, fire, EMS, and possibly even representatives from power, water, and other resources that may have an ability to contribute to the response).
Officer Mental Health
Lanigan says one important concern that is often overlooked in discussions of police response to active shooter attacks is that the incident commander must keep a close eye on their officers’ well-being.
“You stick men and women into an environment that they’ve never had to be in before. And it’s a war zone. You’re going to have cops that are going to physically just shut down on you. And we actually saw that that night, we had cops just simply go into sensory overload and you can’t train that.
“You simply just can’t train it. We can talk about it. We can do scenarios on it, but it’s totally different when people are literally begging you for their life and to live. That was one of the big things that we saw that night is some of our cops just simply overloaded. They were able to fix themselves and get back into it, but it’s just not something that you’ll ever expect and know how to handle,” he says.
The incident commander at an active shooter scene has myriad responsibilities. It is a demanding job but one that is absolutely necessary for successful resolution to the event. The lessons learned from Aurora and other incidents have given police agencies improved tools and tactics to resolve future active shooter events.
Doug Wyllie is contributing web editor for POLICE.