The Stopwatch of Death
Part 1 of a 2-part series
Few in this country will ever forget the images from April 16, 2007, the day Virginia Tech University campus became the scene of a gruesome bloodbath. In a matter of minutes, sociopathic gunman Seung-Hui Cho shot 32 people before killing himself. It was the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history.
While the above speaks specifically to the first of two distinct stages of the shooting that occurred on campus, it serves as a grim reminder of this fact: Active shooters are claiming more casualties in less time than ever before.
The murder statistics of the 44 active shooter incidents (**for which data are available) that have taken place in North America since 1966 are indeed chilling, made more so by the fact that so many of the victims have been children. As human beings, it seems an incomprehensible task to make sense of the carnage.
But can something be learned from the dispassionate numbers — a way to “crunch” them, to boil these incidents down to find a usable, tactical solution? According to Ron Borsch, manager and trainer at the SEALE Regional Training Academy in Bedford, Ohio, there is.
He calls it “The Stopwatch of Death.”
Number of murder attempts / Number of minutes = X
Borsch bases the number of murder attempts on the number of casualties (dead or wounded by a bullet) and divides that by the number of minutes within which the shooting takes place.
The result is a single number (X), called the ‘Stopwatch of Death factor,’ that is assigned to each active shooter incident for which a known time exists.
The ominous trend
"We've seen this trend go steadily up," said Borsch. "The killers try for a bigger score card than their predecessors, which means that more cops need to be ready to go in and take care of business."
This has major implications when it comes to determining response models and formations, namely, training patrol-level officers to go in and defuse the threat on the spot. This is already happening in many areas. (Be sure to read Rick Armellino's recent P1 article When they come to kill the kids: The critical need for "Immediate Action Rapid Deployment".)
“If the death and destruction is done within [the post-Columbine mass murder average of] 8 minutes, every second counts,” Borsch said. “The buck stops with us for the final option of armed intervention when the active shooting takes place.”
The escalation both in the number of active shooter incidents and in the scale of their destruction are cause for concern. One explanation is the tendency of the gunmen to study other infamous examples in hopes of “beating” the last one’s number and gaining what they perceive as immortality in the pantheon of active shooters.
“These are sick people,” said Borsch. “They have a compulsion to be the ‘biggest’ and the ‘best.’
But these shooters are not infallible. They can — and have — been successfully countered.
The shortest response time saves lives Red Lake, Minn. (2005)
Red Lake, Minn. (2005)
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a
“In a lone gunman scenario like Virginia Tech, a response by one officer could be sufficient to defeat the threat,” he said. “At a minimum, one officer can delay and disrupt the killer, as in the recent
In a situation with multiple shooters, the same rules apply.
“I teach that one man, or one woman, behind cover, bringing effective fire, can pin down an entire company for five minutes,” Grossman said. “Five minutes later there will be four of your friends there; in another five minutes there will be a dozen of your friends there; in another five minutes there will be twenty of your friends there. And it will be over.”
Thus, the action taken by the first, second or first few officers from an agency determines success — not that of a large mutual aid operation. (Mutual aid will eventually be needed for the rescue of casualties).
In October 2006, in a piece for PoliceOne, Charles Remsberg gave a harrowing account of an active killer on the loose in a Denver warehouse — a 1.5 square mile labyrinthine structure choked with smoke and filling with ankle-deep water from the tripped sprinkler system. The concrete walls of the warehouse drastically reduced radio communication. One victim was dead, and an unknown number remained at risk. Worse yet, it was a Sunday. Denver SWAT's day off (meaning it took longer than usual for technicians to arrive at the scene).
However, a bloodbath in the early 1990s had prompted the Denver PD to train its patrol officers for active shooter response. Their mission to “seek out where shots are being fired or are last known to have been fired and work toward that area as quickly as possible to neutralize the threat” was put into action.
At 3:24 p.m., a team of half a dozen District 2 officers led by Sgt. Steve Gonzales made entry on the north side of the warehouse near the area where Ford had fired his first volleys. They were accompanied by tactics-trained paramedic support. “They went in knowing they might be shot,” Cmdr. Conner told reporters.
Quickly, the group came upon Ford’s first four victims. All were still alive, although at least two were critically injured. “The two with head wounds almost certainly would have died if they’d laid there much longer,” says SWAT’s Frank Conner. “Those officers saved lives by making immediate entry.”
The evidence supporting a shift in the patrol-level response paradigm is straightforward. Getting there, however, might not be. In Part 2 of this article, you'll hear from law enforcement experts on what it will take to effect a sea change — starting with the very definition of "active shooter."
Read Part 2
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