In late May 2022, a deranged 18-year-old gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, and commenced an attack that claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers. An additional 17 people were wounded. It was the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
As video from school surveillance cameras in the aftermath of the horrific attack was released, law enforcement professionals across the country rightly condemned the police response. Words like "disjointed" and "disorganized" and "delayed" rained down like rolling thunder. In one particularly damning video, more than a dozen uniformed officers can be seen assembled idly in a hallway while an unknown number of victims—some certainly dead, some possibly dying, and some frantically placing phone calls to 911 pleading for assistance—remained in peril.
The same criticism could be made about the police response to the 2018 attack that claimed the lives of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. In that event, gunshots continued from within the building while the School Resource Officer took cover outside.
At ILEETA 2023 in St. Louis last week, in a seminar session dubbed "Street Leadership: Never Again Uvalde, Texas!" renowned law enforcement trainer Dick Fairburn and Chief Patrick Murphy of the Springfield Park (IL) Police Department taught attendees how simple leadership at the street level can avert such failed response in future events.
A Need Fulfilled
"A number of years ago, [we at] Illinois State Police Academy predicted that if we don't train senior officers—corporals, sergeants, whatever you want to call them in your department—how to form a team at an active shooter event and take that team under tight leadership, eventually we're going to see failures," Fairburn told POLICE. "Cops very rarely even work two to a car, and they arrive in staggered response, so we need someone who can gather those resources together, take on the role of the drill sergeant, bark out some orders, and come up with a quick action plan.
After arriving at this conclusion, Fairburn and some of his colleagues began to put together training—modeled in large part on military field leadership principles—for police to do precisely that.
"It started out as four hours of a sergeants' promotional school for the state police and eventually became their whole week. Instead of talking about how to fill out a workman's' comp packet, we talked about how to form a team and hunt down a killer at a school shooting," Fairburn says.
Over the years, Fairburn has continued to refine the program—at one point incorporating a tabletop "model city"—and now offers the instruction to agencies across the country. The most recent iteration of that program is two days, packed with classroom and practical exercises laser-focused on team leader skills.
"The school is organized in teams of six with 24 students in a class," Fairburn begins. "Everything they do is in a team of a sergeant and five. If we have four people from the same agency we will break them up [onto different teams] because we want them working with people they don't know."
The morning of the first day consists of a "round robin" rotation of teams through four different scenarios all happening simultaneously:
· Indoor rapid deployment
· Outdoor rapid deployment
· Suicide by cop
· Downed officer rescue
Each scenario is designed to be completed in less than five minutes so that in the span of about an hour, each team has had the experience of each running each drill three or four times. Importantly, in each rotation, a different team member is placed in the sergeant role.
In the afternoon, Fairburn and his cadre run a larger-scale exercise involving all four teams.
"We have an officer down and a shooter in high ground still active with long gun," Fairburn says. "One team is command—incident command—with a primary response team, a secondary response team, and the fourth team we break up and assign to go with the other three teams. Their job is to be the observer. They take notes and when it's over, the instructors don't debrief that incident—those members of that team do. So we're teaching them how to do a hot wash, an after-action report. It's packed couple of days."
Consequently, in addition to enabling every team member to repeatedly train the tactical elements to each response, everyone in the training develops critical leadership skills that translate directly to enhanced response capabilities to events like Uvalde, Parkland, and others.
A Textbook Response
Fairburn has been teaching versions of this program for years, and has seen successes where his (and similar) concepts have been adopted, and failures where this sort of mindset is absent.
He points out that while some elements of this type of leadership is naturally present in a select set of individuals, it can be instilled—through training—in others.
"When we train cadets," Fairburn explains, "we train them how to just talk on the radio—because a lot of them haven't—and take on a persona, a certain kind of voice. You need that when you're leading a team of officers into a dangerous situation. How often do they stand up on the hood of a car and say, 'I've got twenty of you here—I'm taking charge.' If you show up and there's a vacuum of leadership but you are confident that you can make something positive happen, then just stand up."
Interestingly, just a couple of months before Fairburn taught at the 2023 ILEETA event in St. Louis, officers in that city had to respond to a shooting at a high school.
In late October 2022 at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School—which shares a campus with the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience—a 19-year-old former student entered one of the buildings armed with a long gun and several hundred round of ammunition, intent on killing his former classmates.
Over the school intercom, an administrator said simply, "Miles Davis is in the building"—code for an armed active threat. Classrooms were quickly locked down and calls to the police immediately placed.
Tragically, a student and a teacher were killed in the attack, and seven other were wounded. But for the expedited and effective police response, it could have been much worse. Indeed, one of the attendees to Fairburn's ILEETA presentation approached him after class and described to him what transpired.
Fairburn explains, "Within minutes of the 911 call, they had arrived, formed a team, and hunted the guy down. That's textbook."