March 31, 2011
If there's an active shooter on the loose, what will you do?
While SWAT is an excellent response to an "active-shooter" threat, there might not always be time, and it could be up to a lone officer to act.
In 1984, James Huberty entered a California McDonald's with several firearms and began to kill its patrons for no reason. One of the largest mass killings in history, he shot 40 people, killing 21. No one really knew why he did it, although he was eventually deemed a nut case.
I read all I could about the incident and began to think about what would have happened if my wife and children had been in that restaurant. What did the responding officers feel as they stood back and watched? They must have felt helpless as they waited for command officers to issue an order, to take charge. What would have happened if this had been a school building?
Unfortunately, we now know the answer to this question. Such incidents have occurred with enough frequency that law enforcement had to make changes in its response.
SWAT was thought to be the answer, but we have begun to rethink this of late. We trained officers to set up perimeters, contain the situation and wait for SWAT, but Columbine changed everything. While containment was being established, children were being slaughtered. Public outcry followed.
The next evolution was "rapid response" (better known as quad and now "T" systems) in which officers were trained by SWAT to create ad hoc entry teams before more innocents died.
I attended several of these courses, and while they were well thought out, I could not help but think, "Will these four officers from different agencies be able to come together three or four years from now and perform this action?" To be honest, I seriously doubted it.
There's much debate regarding which response is the best, but I made my decision years ago. Right after the McDonald's incident, I gave a great deal of thought to what I would do if faced with a "slaughter in progress" (the term "active shooter" was yet to be coined), how I would respond to the murder of children before my eyes.
I was a young officer then, and entry tactics, room clearing and movement/shooting were not as refined as they are today. At the same time, searching a building for armed hostiles was much the same then as it is now--performed very carefully.
Patrol rifles were nonexistent, but every marked cruiser had a shotgun, and I carried a box of slugs in my briefcase. Slugs were not approved by my agency at that time, but I decided that I didn't care. I knew where they would hit at 50 yards, and I decided that when faced with a rampaging killer I would stop him--alone if necessary but preferably with another officer to act as a rear guard.
If the shotgun was not available for some reason, I would go forward with my duty sidearm and approved backup gun. I had practiced with this handgun out to 50 yards, and I knew where to hold for shots at 50 and 25 yards and shots closer.
How many of you know where to hold to take such a long shot today? With the emphasis on close combat these days, have you ever even taken a long shot with your handgun?
I decided I would use the building search tactics that were standard and well-practiced throughout Ohio thanks to Bill Groce, a forward-thinking instructor at the state training academy.
My plan? I would enter, telling my backup officer to watch our backs. I would move, slice the pie and clear hallways and rooms as I had been taught. The difference is I would compress the time it took to do this, hopefully hastening identification of the shooter's location.
If shots were being fired, I would move in that direction rapidly, scanning in a 360-degree arc for threats. Moving toward the gunfire is not a new concept. Even we old-timers understood its importance--and necessity.
Having responded to a fire at an elementary school, I knew that frightened children might try to cling to me. All I could do was peel them off, offer a few words of comfort and go. If I arrived at the scene and the shooting had stopped--maybe a hostage crisis--I would back off and wait for SWAT. My response would depend on whether the shooting was ongoing when I arrived.
It was a simple plan really, based on existing training and known skills of the time. It's what I had back then. Today, I have not changed my mind about my active-shooter plan. Some will think I'm crazy, but I long ago decided that children, the future of our society, are worth dying for and that I will do whatever I can to see that they become adults.
It is a personal choice and not one I made lightly. I'm not trying to push my decision on you, but this could happen to you. What will you do if you face a slaughter in progress and you're alone?
You don't have to be a cop; maybe you are a legally armed citizen. What would you do? Maybe you work in a rural area and are the only patrol officer for miles around, what will you do? Maybe it's not a school, but a shopping mall or playground. What will you do? Regardless of your circumstances, it's a good idea to decide now, to make a plan. It may save our future.