Should the first response to active killers be warning shots?

The policy on warning shots varies from agency to agency, but certainly, under these extraordinary circumstances, shots of this kind are justified


In the Spring 2015 issue of CATO News (the official publication of the California Association of Tactical Officers), CATO President Sid Heal published an article titled, “Autopsy of an Active Shooter Incident.” The article takes the reader minute by minute from the bang of the first shot to when the shooter is found and engaged. In between, a number of statistically documented facts are detailed of what happens as the shooter proceeds on his rampage and first responders are called, dispatched and on the scene.

Heal provides a number of impressive statistics that document what is likely to happen and who the shooter(s) is/are likely to be. The vital question one is left asking at the conclusion of this article is this: Is there anything inside this data that might provide first responders a tool or tactic they can employ to retake the initiative from the shooter quicker and bring this matter to an end any sooner?

As any student of tactical science knows, time is not on anyone’s side. Each minute is vital and we must make every effort to get ahead of our opponent in the decision making cycle of the OODA loop.

A San Diego police officer patrols a neighborhood in San Diego on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Image)
A San Diego police officer patrols a neighborhood in San Diego on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Image)

When Seconds Count...
Data in Heal’s article reveals that the average length of time for an active shooter incident is 12 minutes, with 69 percent of incidents lasting less than five minutes. Nearly all of the victims will be killed in the first eight minutes. First responders arrive on scene at the six-and-a-half minute mark.

On average, another three-and-a-half minutes pass before the suspect is found and engaged. By this point the majority of casualties have been inflicted. Normally, the first officer on scene will conduct a quick assessment and wait for backup before moving toward the target. Is there anything that first officer on scene at the six-and-a-half-minute mark can do differently?

Statistically, 40 percent of suspects kill themselves once engaged by officers. That is a very high percentage. Yet, it is not until the tenth minute when the contact with officers precipitating this action occurs. What if we could move the time up for this first contact to the moment when the first officer arrives on scene? Or at least give that impression to the suspect?

Let me offer a recent illustration of the benefits of this from the December 2012 mass shooting in Sandy Hook (Conn.). In this incident, the suspect inexplicably committed suicide long before officers closed in on him. Why? He still had numerous rounds of ammunition and a very clear agenda later identified by investigators.

The deduction made by those analyzing the incident is that the suspect thought he was under fire from the first responding officers. He could see them outside the school although they could not see him. Evidence showed he even fired at the officers, but due to the odd amplifying, echoing effect of the school’s PA system, which was active throughout the attack, officers were unaware of this and did not return fire.

Yet he thought they did.

Why? Because the strap on his rifle broke. It is surmised he believed the strap was severed by a round being fired back at him by officers. Rather than dying at the hands of officers, he took his own life.

Immediate Warning Shots?
Active shooters operate with impunity until confronted. If this is not done inside by victims, then they act out until law enforcement engage them. Well, what if, as in the case of the suspect at Sandy Hook, we make them think they are being engaged even before they really are? What if the first officer on scene immediately cranks off several rounds safely into the ground?

The policy on warning shots varies from agency to agency, but certainly, under these extraordinary circumstances, shots of this kind are justified. Once a suspect starts hearing rounds being fired that are not his, he must conclude officers are on scene — even if these rounds are nowhere near him. He knows that responding emergency personnel are closing in and he has lost the initiative.

Examining the statistics, some suspects may opt to end an incident by their own hand at this point. In any event, we are certainly no worse off, based on the data in Heal’s article, by firing a few warning shots before advancing than we would be if we proceeded without them. Immediately firing warning shots upon arrival at an active shooter situation is certainly controversial and each incident must be assessed carefully by each first responding officer before undertaking this course of action, but we must look for any edge in these ever increasing deadly incidents.  

Our end state for these incidents is to see the killing end as quickly as possible and to stop the suspect. Firing warning shots immediately upon arriving on scene may accomplish this far sooner than statistics show we are doing now.

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