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The right stuff: Responding to an active shooter with limited manpower

By Frank Borelli

When a situation gets ugly, you know you have work to do. The question is, do you have the tools to do it?  Choosing the right weapons and ammunition will help make every second count. Being properly armed and outfitted is especially critical if you're short on manpower — you'll need all the help you can get.

I recently received an email inquiry from an officer who works an extremely rural area and has limited manpower available for an active shooter response. Having read several articles on the subject, he asked, “Hey; what about those of us who might only have one or two officers to respond at all?” His question started me thinking and I opened a discussion on this topic in a couple of online forums I participate in.

(AP Photo/LM Otero)
My question was, “Any suggestions? If you have to go by yourself or with only one other officer, what would your approach be?” My assumption was that, while recent school shootings have been performed by single shooters, we must be prepared and trained for a minimum of two shooters and a maximum (in a terrorist siege situation) of 20. Of course, it could be more than that; however, Columbine had two shooters, and that’s the model most agencies train on. One active shooter situation, which was  circumvented before it could be played out had planned for five shooters.  

I was amazed at the commitment shown by the respondents, who put the immediate response first and foremost. The gentleman who sent the original email said (paraphrased), “I have no realistic hope of getting four officers on the scene in anything less than an hour. I’m not going to stand around safe outside and wait. I’m going to take what I’ve got and go do what is called for.”

One of the posts went like this: “Lastly, if you can’t have as many [officers] as you need, man up and go anyway. If all you have is two, two it is. One, OK. One trained now is much, much better than 20 an hour from now.”

Put in a slightly different way, this from another responder: “Remember, each and every round they send in your direction is a round that they did not put into some innocent victim’s head.”

Another comment that I felt was very important and insightful, even if not eloquently worded was: “Screw public perception... I would rather look too aggressive and save the lives of innocent men, women and children than be under prepared and have those lives lost.”

Now that we understand the extreme dedication that has to be the point-of-view we work from, let’s take a look at how to prepare and equip to deal with such an ugly situation.

From here forward, I’m assuming that most law enforcement professionals go on duty with some semblance of the following:

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

- A primary duty handgun: in 9mm, .40S&W, .45ACP, .357Sig, 10mm, or other decent fighting round. This does not include .380ACP, .25ACP, or anything in .22.

- Plenty of ammunition. One thing that becomes abundantly clear is that having plenty of ammo is imperative. Resupply is problematic at best, and running out is just plain unacceptable. The average cop is most likely carrying a handgun fully stoked and two back up magazines. In a Government Model 1911 .45ACP that’s only 22 rounds; in a Glock 22, that’s 46 rounds;  a Glock 17 equates to 52 rounds and a  Beretta 92F (M9) is 46 rounds. While I know plenty of people who believe that 9mm is not powerful enough when facing multiple opponents, would you rather have 22 rounds of .45ACP’ or 52 rounds of 9mm? The answer is one that you have to be happy with.

- A back up gun, where authorized. For a lot of people this is a Chief’s Special, 5-shot .38 Special. For others it’s a pocket-sized semi-auto (.380ACP, like a Walther). For others still, this is a downsized version of their duty gun: where the duty gun is a Glock 17, the BUG is a Glock 26. They use the same magazines and can shoot the exact same ammo. Functionality is identical. To my way of thinking, this is optimal.

- A good knife, or knives. Heaven forbid the fighting becomes a hand-to-hand issue, however, I’d rather have two good folding lockblades than no edged weapon at all. One is better than none. They don’t have to be fixed blades and they don’t have to be huge. I’m not referring to the stuff that will scare your chief executive officer into a liability coma. However, if you can, carry a decent fixed blade knife.

- Flashlight(s). Parts of every structure can be dark if the power is out. Take the light with you, twice. After all, it’s only your ass on the line.

All right, we know there is plenty of stuff every law enforcement officer carries that I have not listed. Things like handcuffs, OC spray, utility tools, rubber gloves, etc. Why did I leave these out? Because in a close quarters shooting battle, what do they matter? I’ve never heard the words “affect an arrest” used in active shooter training. Active shooter response is about an aggressive and violent response to an aggressive and violent action. “Drop your gun or I’ll shoot,” isn’t an option. Shoot. Stop the threat. Handcuffs are for after the shooter is down and incapacitated. OC spray? Maybe as a distraction when you’re at the hand-to-hand fighting position. Rubber gloves? Assuming a “holy cow, everything has gone to hell in a handbasket” active shooter scenario, rubber gloves won’t be enough to keep the blood off you.

So, what do we add to the list? For active shooter response, even where plenty of manpower is available, there are certain equipment recommendations. These items become more important if you’re in a limited manpower situation:

A Long Gun: Shotgun, Carbine or Rifle
I know a number of experts who believe the shotgun has limited use in an active shooter situation. One comment was, “Why take 200-year old technology into the gunfight?” I understand this outlook, especially as it’s applied to common buckshot ammo. When the enemy is 70 yards away, 00 buck will do you no good, and might spread out far enough to hit an unintended target. Slugs are an option, but are abusive to shoot and inaccurate past 25 yards or so. Today though, an option does exist for law enforcement: PolyShok. Anytime you can fire the equivalent of a slug with the recoil of 8-shot and head-shot accuracy at 50 yards, that’s not 200-year old technology. Further, the energy delivered to the enemy is incapacitating and devastating, even if he’s wearing body armor. To me, this makes the shotgun a viable active shooter option, especially in light of how often one can be found in cruiser trunks. 

The carbine is certainly better than going in with only a handgun. It will increase your accurate shot placement distances out to between 50-100 yards; farther if you practice. Still, let’s be realistic: this is a long barrelled handgun. The added range is excellent; the increased accuracy at distances less than 50 yards is magnificent; but this is not a weapon that will penetrate body armor or deliver disabling hits on body armor. In this vein, I like the idea of the Beretta CX4 carbine, used in combination with the Beretta PX4 pistol. Since they are the same caliber, they use the same magazine, making it easier to carry extra loads for both weapons.

Finally, the rifle! The rifle is the weapon that was designed for one of two purposes: To hunt large game (animals that weigh in excess of 150 pounds); and to hunt men.

It never ceases to amaze me that people believe a bullet, fired from a common caliber handgun, will knock a man off his feet. Please! For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If the bullet coming out the end of the handgun will knock the man it is shot at 15 feet, it must also knock the man shooting it 15 feet backward (assuming equal weight of men - you get the point). That said, rifles are designed to deliver a bullet at much higher speeds, with much greater accuracy, and doing far more damage in terminal ballistics.

If I have to go into an active shooter situation, my preference for long gun is:

- Rifle: with a minimum of six 30-round magazines;

- Shotgun: With an extended mag tube, six on the side shell holder; and as many more as I can carry in my pockets;

- Carbine: With all the appropriate magazines I can carry.

All law enforcement officers should be wearing body armor. Level III is quite common in normal duty cases, but what about going into a known high-risk high-threat area? Upgraded body armor and/or plates are required. Remember, “Every bullet fired at you is one less fired into a victim.” How many rounds can you absorb? You–not so many. Good armor–more. For this reason I recommend having a response vest in your cruiser that incorporates another layer of armor and/or plates. That same vest can hold your extra rifle magazines and extra handgun magazines. I recommend the Rapid Deployment Body Armor Bag. It’s my understanding that P.A.C.A. is now manufacturing that bag. Check it out.

What about armor for your head? How many cops actually have a ballistic helmet in their trunk? If so, how many have put it on? And of those who have put it on, how many have trained with it on? I can tell you from experience that training with the helmet on (especially when prone) isn’t as easy as doing it without any headcover. But shrapnel, flying debris and bullets can present a real threat to your head. Protect it. And as a final option, if you’re strong enough and can train with it, use a body bunker or shield. I find bunkers heavy and cumbersome. However, the Baker Batshield is a folding soft-armor shield that can be used in its carry case or out. It is a Level III armor shield that is easy to train with. One of these in each trunk would be a good idea.

Now that we have basic equipment covered, what about tactics?. One man cannot cover a 360-degree threat environment. Risks have to be taken. In this instance, speed equals security. While we train in active shooter response to go past closed doors, and move through hallway intersections depending on our wing men, how do you accomplish this as a single operator? You have to check open doors and corners. If you hear shots down the hall and around the corner, should you pause to check open doors along the way? This is going to require nerves of steel and a quick analytical ability.

Each door presents more information. Is it open or closed? If open, do you hear  voices? screams? shouts? Are the lights on or off? Perhaps most importantly, (if you’ve trained and are on your game) do you feel a threat exists there as you move? If you’re a lone operator going into an active shooter situation, you will have to depend on your instincts in a large way. The more you’ve trained under high stress, the more accurate your instincts will be. Lower levels of training can result in stress overload when it comes to the real deal. When stress overload occurs, all of your instincts and perceptions are suspect. If you’re a lone operator and know that your backup is 10 minutes away, and shots are blasting inside the school, do what you have to do:

- Do take the time to armor up with what you have.

- Do equip yourself as best you can with what you have.

- Do communicate your arrival and intentions. Expect to be ordered not to make entry.

- Do advise what door you are entering, and what intel you can offer before making entry. If you can maintain an open mike as you go, do so. If not, update   as circumstances permit.

- Do move as fast toward your target as your instincts and capabilities permit.

- Do engage without hesitation. Every wasted second is potentially another innocent life.

- Do your best to look high and low as you move. Improvised Explosive Devices are common at active shooter scenes. Trip wires can be hard to see.

Below are some direct quotes from posts in response to my questions:


About the Author
Lt. Frank Borelli is the Training Commander and DHS Co-ordinator for Fairmount Heights Police Department, Washington DC. Pulling on his military service and police experience, Frank  develops contemporary training programs. Comments may be sent to:  frank@frankborelli.com

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