Active Shooter Response from the Survivors' Perspectives

It's important that officers know how civilians may react to a shooting attack and police response to the attack.


After working for 27 years in workplace and school violence prevention, I have come to several less-than-positive conclusions about the tens of thousands of people I have trained. Most of them are nice folks, well-meaning, and respectful of my messages to them during the countless numbers of short and long classes I have taught on the concepts of both why workplace and school perpetrators do what they do and how we must stop them.

I have stood in front of so many people, saying the same things over and over (and over and over) about interrelated issues. These include things like pre-attack warning signs, perpetrators who leak information to people other than their targets, avoiding "profile" thinking, having the courage to speak to their company or school safety and security stakeholders, and knowing when and what to say to them about what they have seen or heard to help us stop these attacks. Yet I still feel like too many of them are floating on that big barge on that long river in Egypt known as "Denial."

Despite the fact that this country has moved from having one mass shooting in 2000 (at a software company in Massachusetts) to 30 to 40 serious events per year, there is still the mentality that "it can't happen here" or "those things mostly happen in high-crime cities." As USA Today reported in the days following the November 2018 mass attack at the Borderline country music bar in Thousand Oaks, CA, four of the most deadly shootings in the last 50 years took place in 2018 alone. If you add in the Las Vegas concert shooting and the church shooting at Sutherland Springs, TX in 2017, the past two years have been our deadliest ever for active shooters.

After reviewing so many shootings over the years and talking with law enforcement officers, incident commanders, and leaders who responded to these events, and hearing the questions, comments, and feedback during my training classes, I have come to these 10 conclusions about the people who may be in the building when the perpetrator's attack commences:


They think these perpetrators are invincible or unstoppable because they may be armed with several semi-automatic handguns, multiple magazines, and long guns. They hear so many news stories about these attackers over-arming themselves and wearing tactical gear that they feel overwhelmed, as if the situation was hopeless. I frequently tell them that they can fight back and win, that these attackers are not Navy SEALS or Marine commandos gone rogue; they're just serial losers who want to be winners and think they can become infamous if they kill more people than the previous guy. Fighting back works, I tell them. We can stop these people. And as to their wearing tactical gear, just because I put on a cowboy hat that doesn't make me a real cowboy.


Many do not understand that the shooter already knows he only has about five to 10 minutes to kill as many people as possible before the police engage with him. They do not comprehend that the shooter's internal clock starts ticking as soon as he pulls out his weapon and even before he fires his first shot. You and your highly trained colleagues will be en route and will engage as soon as you get your eyes on the bad guy.



They may believe that you will be able to immediately recognize the shooter based only on his holding a gun. This means they may leave out crucial details about the suspect's description, direction, and behaviors, all of which can help your tactical plan and actions. I tell my training audiences to give every detail they know to the dispatchers about the attacker, so that he cannot just blend in with the stressed-to-the-max crowd of students or employees and try to get away.


Many may think these shooters don't have a predetermined target list. Because these attacks appear random—especially in the eyes of the TV media or their usual experts—the people near the shooter often fail to realize he has already rehearsed this attack for many weeks or months in advance and knows exactly who he wants to kill. Common targets include: ex-wife, boss, co-workers who bullied him, women who wouldn't date him, students who teased him, teachers who failed him, etc. After targeting these people, it's not unusual for the active shooter to try to kill as many people as he can to get the body count high enough to make not just the local or national news, but the international channels as well.


An alarming number of people believe that lying on the floor and pretending to be dead will save them from being killed. Who knows where and when this "play possum and you'll survive" concept became popular? I teach the opposite, of course: If you cannot Run out of the building safely; then Hide out in the safest room you can find; and if necessary, Fight Back.

Many people think active shooters are invincible or unstoppable because they may be armed with several semi-automatic handguns, multiple magazines, and long guns.Many people think active shooters are invincible or unstoppable because they may be armed with several semi-automatic handguns, multiple magazines, and long guns.Photo: Getty Images


Many may believe the shooter will not fire through a wooden door or tinted glass. While we've never seen an attacker shoot the lock off a door like James Bond, we know they have no qualms about shooting through doors, walls, shades, windows, or glass to hit their targets.


A lot of people believe that while engaging the shooter and clearing the building you will have the time or the capability to provide them with first-aid. While they may see you as having similar life-saving capabilities as a firefighter or paramedic, they don't always realize your primary goal is to stop the shooter first.


Many may still think that the sound of gunshots is either firecrackers or a car backfiring. This is the most common thing I have ever heard. While taking the tour at the Dallas Book Depository last summer, I watched a TV video taken right after President Kennedy was killed. Several witnesses said, "When we first heard the shots, we thought it was firecrackers." From today to as far back as 55 years ago, there are lots of people who can't tell the difference between gunshots and firecrackers.


People will not recognize you as a responding police officer, especially if you're in plainclothes or wearing tactical gear. As the San Bernardino Police officers discovered when they first made entry into the shooting scene caused by the husband and wife terrorists in December 2015, the survivors did not immediately see them as cops, but rather, the attackers returning again to finish the job. I tell my training audiences that they will see cops wearing all kinds of different uniforms, including suits and ties, camouflage, or hoodies, and carrying everything from revolvers to semi-autos, to ballistic shields and rifles.


Many will not fully or immediately understand the value of post-traumatic stress debriefings after the incident is over. These types of life-changing events will require the long-term presence of trained and empathic trauma counselors. Everyone who witnesses or experiences these mass attacks firsthand is affected and the need for group debriefs and individual trauma therapy work is just a necessity.

Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. His 21 books include "Contact & Cover," "Patrol Cop," "Albrecht on Guns," and "Tactical Perfection for Street Cops." He can be reached at or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht.

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