Solo officer risks and other truths about active shooter responses
Although total numbers are small, an analysis of active shooter events for the first time has estimated the statistical risk that a single officer assumes when entering a killing site alone in pursuit of a murderous suspect.
“[T]here is a 14 percent chance that an officer will be shot when he or she makes a solo entry into an active shooter attack site,” according to a report issued recently by a research-and-training team from Texas State University’s School of Criminal Justice. “This makes solo officer entry an extremely dangerous activity.”
Indeed, a single-officer response may make an active shooting “the most dangerous call in law enforcement,” associate professor Dr. J. Pete Blair told Force Science News.
In a study he headed, researchers were able to document 14 instances in which an arriving officer entered an attack site alone. In two cases, the officer ended up being shot before the incident was resolved.
“That is not to say that officers should not make solo entry,” Blair explains. “It’s hard to wait outside and listen to gunshots. A solo entry may be fully justifiable as the best option for saving lives. But we feel that officers should be informed of the risk and not make entry with the expectation that they’re not going to have to fight.”
Blair is director of research for a specialty unit within the CJ School called ALERRT (Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training), which offers training in active shooter tactics to agencies throughout the US. Calling on more than 200 experienced adjunct instructors, the group has trained more than 40,000 LEOs since its founding in 2002.
In June 2013, a book by four ALERRT staff members — Blair, Terry Nichols, John Curnutt, and David Burns — was published, detailing in practical terms what the group considers “best practices” for successfully handling a mass murder incident. Titled Active Shooter Events and Response, the 264-page volume includes a chapter devoted to Blair’s in-depth research of 84 active shooter cases that occurred in the US between 2000 and 2010.
What he documented, Blair believes, is essential for police trainers to know as they work to develop meaningful instruction for their officers.
Here are the findings he believes are “most relevant”:
Active shooter events (ASEs) were most likely (37 percent) to erupt in a business setting (factory, warehouse, office, retail outlet), followed closely by schools (34 percent). About 17 percent occurred outdoors in “public venues.” About 20 percent of attackers went mobile, either walking or driving to a different location to continue their attack.
In nearly 40 percent of cases, the shooters had no apparent relationship to the shooting locations(s).
To be counted as an ASE in Blair’s research, an incident had to involve “one or more persons engaged in killing or attempting to kill multiple people in an area occupied by multiple unrelated individuals,” with the primary motive appearing to be mass murder. “At least one of the victims [had to] be unrelated to the shooter.” He excluded gang-related attacks.
Shooters fitting his criteria overwhelmingly proved to be male (92 percent) and most often were between the ages of 21 and 50, although ones as young as 13 and as old as 88 were encountered.
While all shootings studied involved “some planning,” only 35 percent of shooters engaged in “extensive planning,” that is, preparation beyond just acquiring weapons and ammunition. This included “obtaining or drawing diagrams of the attack location, possessing a ‘hit list,’ wearing body armor, or acquiring the equipment/supplies needed to trap victims in the location or slow law enforcement response...preparing a manifesto, blogging about the attack, or developing a media kit.”
“A pistol was the most powerful weapon used in the majority” (60 percent) of ASEs, Blair states.
“Rifles were the next most popular weapon,” deployed in 27 percent of attacks. In about 40 percent of cases, shooters carried multiple weapons. Only 2 percent brought explosives to the attack location.
Very few (four percent) tried to protect themselves by wearing body armor.
The median law enforcement response time after the initial report of an ASE during Blair’s study period was three minutes. The median time from first report to the event ending was also three minutes. By nine minutes, the vast majority of assailants (73 percent) have stopped shooting. Where events last longer, it generally is because the suspect stopped shooting but barricaded himself or fled the scene.
In the longest instance, police arrived on scene four minutes after being notified. “A SWAT team performed entry 18 minutes later,” Blair notes. “The shooter was then barricaded for approximately seven hours,” until a SWAT operator ended the standoff.
In 43 percent of the time, Blair found, the shooting had ended before LEOs arrived. In about half of those incidents, the suspect killed himself. About 4 percent of the time, he fled. In the remaining cases, people on the scene subdued or shot the shooter.
Once LEOs were on scene, shooters still active were twice as likely to commit suicide as to surrender. Of those whose slaughtering was stopped by police, nearly 70 percent were shot, the rest physically subdued.
In a paper summarizing his study, prepared for the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), Blair cites the following implications for training from his findings:
Considering that roughly one in five ASEs occurs outdoors and/or goes mobile, it’s critical for trainers to “address operating in outdoor environments. Movement techniques and other strategies that work indoors in CQB situations may be ineffective — even fatal — in outdoor environments, Blair cautions.
“While it is true that many active shooters will kill themselves either before the police arrive or when the attacker becomes aware that the police are on scene, the shooter aggressively fights the responding police officers in many cases,” Blair states. “Officers must be trained in tactics that will allow them to defeat the shooter should it become necessary.”
While IEDs are uncommon, they have been encountered in ASEs. “Officers should receive at least awareness-level training” regarding identification and response to explosive threats.
Officers should be taught basic mechanical and manual breaching skills, to foil attackers who have barricaded doors and/or windows to prevent police entry. Among other equipment, they should be familiarized with “a variety of shotgun breaching rounds” that can facilitate entry while protecting innocent parties who may be on the other side of the breach point.
“Officers should be trained to deliver immediate lifesaving care” — with tourniquets and/or wound-care kits, for example — “that can stabilize victims” found at the shooting scene “until higher levels of care can be provided.” This becomes especially important when EMS personnel “will not enter an unsecured scene.”
Both outdoors and indoors, confrontations may happen “at distances beyond which most officers can effectively engage threats with a pistol,” including large open areas outside and long hallways inside schools and businesses. Patrol rifles are “far more accurate” at much longer distances than pistols, Blair points out. Moreover, with a substantial percentage of active shooters wielding rifles, “at the very least we should place officers on an equal footing with their adversaries.”
With attackers often willing to fight officers and often carrying weapons that will penetrate standard soft body armor, “there is a need to upgrade the defensive capabilities of responding officers” with a plate carrier for enhanced protection. “If we are going to ask officers to go into attack scenes and confront armed gunmen, we owe it to [them] to give them the best possible chance to survive and win the encounter,” Blair says.
In the new book from ALERRT, the authors identify three levels of complexity regarding ASEs:
1.) Of the cases Blair studied, 42 percent could be considered “basic”: a single offender, killing or attempting to kill at one location, with no weaponry or other equipment beyond a handgun.
2.) More than half of the cases (58 percent) involved at least one element that made them of “moderate” complexity: additional shooter(s), mobile or outdoor location(s), explosives, gas, attempts to barricade entryways, body armor, and/or long guns. “Most contained only a single added complexity,” the authors say, but even that makes the perpetrator(s) more difficult to defeat.
3.) “High” complexity events involve “multiple teams of trained attackers simultaneously attacking multiple locations” — in other words, “coordinated terrorist attacks,” a la the Mubai calamity.
“At a bare minimum,” Blair advises, officers should have the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to deal with a basic attack. If agencies “want their people to be prepared adequately,” they should also address the challenges involved in moderately complex events. Although no highly complex ASE has yet occurred in the US, the book explores the training required for confronting that threat as well, anticipating that that day is coming.
At whatever level, it’s important that training incorporate SWAT-type tactics that have been specially adapted for successful patrol-officer application, Blair says. With the occurrence rate of ASEs apparently accelerating and law enforcement response times improving, it seems inevitable that street officers will increasingly be expected to deal with active shooters as first responders, either alone initially or in small groups.
Training for that eventuality is ALERRT’s specialty, Blair says. Usually agencies can obtain the group’s hands-on instruction free of charge, through a variety of government grants.