Why 'tactical loitering' doesn't cut it anymore

In an active shooter situation, there's no time to wait for backup


Three respected trainers I talked with recently are concerned about what they call “tactical loitering” and/or “dithering.” Are they off base?

The terms refer to first responders who arrive at the scene of an urgent, life-threatening crime-in-progress — particularly an active shooting — but instead of taking immediate action, they stall, waiting either for other officers or a supervisor to show up or, in the most extreme cases, waiting for SWAT (a la pre-Columbine). 

Such delaying is rumored to have occurred in some recent high-profile active-shooter situations, whereas contemporary training calls generally for first arrivers to promptly enter the killing site — considering that option even if they are alone — and begin the critical task of tracking down and neutralizing the offender(s). 

Three Voices, One Message
Don Alwes, a nationally recognized tactical trainer who moderated a panel on active-shooter response at the latest ILEETA conference, told me he has it on “good authority” that entry into several mass murder scenes of late was delayed unnecessarily for as long as five minutes after the first officers arrived.

At one high-fatality event, Alwes said, a reliable source who was present told him “officers looked for other things to do rather than go inside and try to confront the killer.” The shooting continued until the assassin exited the location and “inadvertently encountered an officer outside.”

At another site, he said, reports claimed the first arriving officer “allowed his focus to shift to the first victims he saw” rather than immediately pursue the gunman, who was still hunting fresh kills. 

At still another banner-headline bloodletting, the first local officers allegedly arrived within two minutes but waited several minutes more for backup from another agency before taking action.

“The consistent thread in these reports should be investigated to establish the truth,” Alwes said, “because these time-dependent situations are not really tolerant of that kind of delay.” 

Ron Borsch, a tactical first-responder specialist who teaches single-officer counter-tactics at the South East Area Law Enforcement Academy in Ohio, added, “The typical active killer is in a race to accomplish a large body count before police can arrive and stop him. 

“If you squander two minutes when you are already behind the 8-ball in terms of response time, you are absolutely guaranteeing you won’t be successful in interrupting a suspect’s rapid mass murder.”

Veteran firearms instructor John Farnam of Defense Training International agrees. 

“We all know from bitter experience that active-killer situations rarely turn out well,” Farnam said. “Too often officers in a position to initiate action at the scene, don’t. Many departments brag about their fast response time to crises. What they don’t mention is the tendency to do nothing after they arrive. Even long after Columbine now, an endemic paralysis is still prevalent.”

Borsch, law enforcement’s preeminent phrasemaker, has coined the term “tactical loitering” (Farnam calls it “dithering”). 

In Borsch’s mind, it includes waiting for someone else to join in or take charge of the response, employing a “containment strategy,” using “slow and methodical” search tactics, and becoming distracted by wounded innocents. 

“These activities can be valuable tools on some calls,” he explains. “But on active-killer calls they assist the murderer in getting what he wants. With active killers, precious manpower is urgently needed inside the facility to stop the bloodshed.”

What’s behind the persistent hesitancy that these trainers perceive? They suspect it’s a blend of several influences.

Antiquated Training
“As I go around the country teaching, I encounter many departments still instructing officers to wait until four or six are present before making entry,” said Alwes. “These departments haven’t yet gotten on board with current thinking.” 

Borsch, who has researched active killer cases extensively, has been able to document only one instance where a formation of four or more officers successfully interrupted a murder spree — a far poorer record than that of single officers who have initiated fast, aggressive action alone. 

“It’s key for agencies and officers to understand that stubbornly clinging to a multi-officer response reduces the success potential significantly,” Borsch said. 

Confusion of Priorities
Alwes speculated that the current emphasis in training on teaching tactical combat casualty care may unintentionally be causing officers to rearrange their priorities, so that aiding victims is moved ahead of closing on the active killer. 

“On these calls, first aid is not your first priority,” he says. “It’s something you do after the shooter is no longer a threat. The first goal is always to stop the threat. All other missions are secondary.”

Overemphasis on Officer Survival
“Undoubtedly,” Alwes said, “an overemphasis on officer safety is part of the hesitancy equation. We’ve told officers that their most important job is to go home alive and uninjured at the end of their shift. But how many officers would believe that if their own family was inside a place where shots are going off? I would never ask an officer to throw his life away on a suicide mission. But there are times when it’s important for us to put ourselves at great personal risk to fulfill our sworn duty to protect.” 

Borsch added, “For first responders, it’s a forced choice: either place yourself at risk to stop the killer or allow innocents to continue being at risk of being murdered while you play it safe.”

“‘Good tactics’ does not always mean ‘taking no risk’,” Farnam said. “‘Good tactics’ means ‘taking the best risk’ at the critical moment.”

Agency Culture
In some departments “officers are actually discouraged from taking assertive action on their own,” Farnam said. 

“When dynamic personal initiative is not encouraged, officers arriving at the scene will predictably loiter about ineffectively, waiting for some supervisor to finally arrive rather than step up to the plate without delay and start making decisions.”

Cowardice and Fear
“There are cases of hesitancy where cowardice is an issue,” said Alwes. “Most officers are brave and will do what needs to be done. But a small few are truly cowards. Their fear of personal harm or of making the wrong decision leads to inaction. We must recognize that and have a way to deal with it when it’s encountered.” 

“The ‘risk-averse’ cop who won’t step up to the plate regardless of the danger of doing nothing needs to do something else for a living,” said Farnam. “The ever-fearful are fond of saying ‘Don’t be a hero.’ That’s rubbish! We need to be heroes, and we need to train heroes. Others need not apply!”

What do you think? Are these trainers justified in their concerns about tactical loitering? Is it needlessly increasing active-shooter death tolls? And if so, what can be done about it?

About the author

Charles Remsberg co-founded the original Street Survival Seminar and the Street Survival Newsline, authored three of the best-selling law enforcement training textbooks, and helped produce numerous award-winning training videos. His nearly three decades of work earned him the prestigious O.W. Wilson Award for outstanding contributions to law enforcement and the American Police Hall of Fame Honor Award for distinguished achievement in public service.

Buy Charles Remsberg's latest book, Blood Lessons, which takes you inside more than 20 unforgettable confrontations where officers' lives are on the line.

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