5 phases of an active shooter incident for all cops to know backward and forward

Preparing for and responding to an active shooter incident requires a when-then mindset

The term active shooter is a perfect description for what happens in these increasing familiar incidents. One or more people begin shooting everyone in sight, either for a specific purpose or simply at random. As to be expected, law enforcement begins adapting and gearing up to meet the challenges these incidents present. Unfortunately, we have learned the hard way that to wait for a SWAT team to respond at the scene will not save a single person. An active shooter incident requires an immediate, effective and efficient act of courage. Whether a police officer is on or off duty, he needs to ride to the sound of the guns, and end the threat as quickly as possible.

The list of cities struck by the phenomenon of active shooters is tragically long. ASIs are not geographically or socioeconomically constrained, they occur in both rural and urban areas. Therefore, law enforcement agencies all over the country are designing training programs to address the possibility that they might face similar threats in their jurisdictions. Their ultimate goal is to eliminate and minimize casualties in the event their officers are met with this unique challenge.

Police departments do not have to wait until bullets are flying and people are dying to stop the active shooter. Sometimes, officers are able to step between the shooter and his intended victims long before the screaming and bleeding begins.There are five phases of this type of incident.

1. Fantasy stage 
Initially, the shooter only dreams of the shooting. He fantasizes about the headlines and the news coverage he’ll receive. He pictures breaking the death count record of the previous active shooter, and going out in a blaze of glory. He may draw pictures of the event, create social media postings and even discuss these desires with friends and foes alike. If these fantasies are passed on to law enforcement, police intervention can take place prior to the suspect’s attack. In this case, there may even be zero casualties.

2. Planning stage
The suspect is still a potential active shooter at this stage. Logistics are being determined – the who, what, when, where and how of the infamous day. Plans are being documented and possibly discussed with others. A time and location will be decided upon – one that will ensure the greatest number of victims or, in some cases, target specific individuals. The potential shooter will determine the weapons needed and how they will be obtained. Decisions about how to travel to the target location and how to dress to conceal weapons without arousing suspicion are being made. If the police are tipped off at this time, intervention may be made with zero casualties.

3. Preparation stage
A law enforcement agency can still intervene during the preparation stage. The suspect may be obtaining gun powder or other chemicals for improvised explosive devices. It's possible the suspect might be breaking into residences or commercial buildings to steal weapons and ammunition and/or hide them away in a designated place closer to the location of the planned attack. The suspect may also do a practice run or walkthrough of the operation, gearing up for the assault. Potential shooters have been known to call friends and tell them not to go to school or work on a certain day, in order to keep them out of the line-of-fire. If one of these people informs police of their concerns, there is another opportunity for law enforcement to intervene before the event. If this is the case, there is a real possibility that there may be zero casualties.

4. Approach stage
The closer the time to the planned event, the more dangerous it will be for an officer taking action. By the approach stage, the suspect has made plans and has committed to carry out the act. At this point, the suspect is actually moving toward the intended target and will most likely be carrying the tools that will be used for the massacre.

Officers may come into contact with the suspect at this stage because of a citizen complaint, a traffic stop or something simialr. A thorough investigation can lead to an arrest of the suspect before he brings down a multitude of innocent people in a shooting or bombing. However dangerous the stop, an alert and armed officer has a final chance to intervene if he is prepared and aware during every street contact. This contact could become a lifesaver and may end in zero casualties.

5. Implementation stage
Once the shooter opens fire, immediate action must be taken. Initial responding officers need to immediately proceed to the suspect and stop the threat. If the suspect is not stopped, the active shooter will continue to kill until there are no more victims or ammunition. Remember, the active shooter is going for the highest number of kills on record for an active shooter incident. It is almost like a bizarre video game, except it’s real.

The sooner someone – anyone – effectively intervenes through an act of courage, the fewer funerals will result. In past incidents, active shooters have been thwarted by police officers, security guards and school teachers. In October 2006, Principal John Klang of Weston High School in Cazenovia, Wis., died wrestling an armed 15 year-old student to the floor. Klang saved every life in the school – except his own.

Responding officers will need to practice Quick Aggressive Deployment, also known as QUAD, in case the suspect goes on a shooting rampage. Law enforcement officers who respond will be able to utilize these following factors to their advantage:

  • Someone must stop the shooter, thereby ending the killing spree.
  • The shooter will be highly focused on spraying bullets into as many people as possible.
  • Expect the scene to be loud and chaotic.
  • Use the chaos to move quietly to an advantageous position.
  • Terrified victims and the sound of gunfire will direct officers to the shooter.
  • When an active shooting is in progress, officers do not have to verbalize warnings or requests if it endangers lives. Take the shot! Make the shot!
  • If the subject is contained in a nonviolent pose, officers should begin negotiations and initiate a classic SWAT response.

On-duty tactics
A single officer responding to an active shooter must realize that, while he or she may be able to minimize some of the carnage, the shooter is ultimately responsible for all casualties. This is a vital piece of knowledge – police are not responsible for the casualties. Preparation for active shooter incidents should be made in advance. Each officer has only a moment to decide whether to contain and wait for additional units, or to take immediate action, because innocent victims are dying with each shot. This is a dire situation and you may have to risk your life.

The first responding officer should radio as much information as possible, outlining what appears to be going on and all other relevant data. This transfer of information makes it easier for follow-up elements to respond.

Making an entry with four is better than three. Making an entry with three is better than two. Making an entry with two is better than one. Making an entry with one is better than none.

Breathe, think and advance using the chaos as a diversion.

Remember long guns for long halls. Officers need superior firepower. Officers may have to pass rooms and courtyards that have not been cleared in order to reach the shooter. Gather as many facts as possible. Move to a position of advantage that affords a field of vision and cover, as well as a clear shot at the suspect. Attempt to do this without alerting the suspect. Quickly assess the suspect’s actions. If he is shooting, do not advise, warn or request. Take the shot! Make the shot! Look for additional threats. Communicate the situation and location. Reload during the lull while watching the suspect and looking for accomplices. Secure the suspect. Assess his condition.

Off-duty response
Police officers who carry a firearm while off-duty should ask themselves:

  • Do I have a weapon I have trained with?
  • Do I have a way to identify myself as a police officer?
  • Do I have a way to secure a suspect?
  • Do I have a way to communicate (such as a cell phone)?
  • Do I have reload capability?
  • Have I done hands-on training in responding to the active shooter?

If you answered no to any of these questions, take additional action so you can answer yes.

Officers who do not carry a firearm while off-duty should ask themselves the following:

  • Should I carry while off-duty in a post 9/11 world?
  • If someone was shooting in my child’s school, would I take action armed or not?
  • If I was about to be shot by an active shooter, would I refuse to go quietly into the night?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to consider carrying a weapon while off-duty. Research your department’s policy and the laws in your area. Recent changes in federal law make it easier for a sworn police officer to carry a concealed weapon outside his jurisdiction when off-duty. New laws have been enacted to allow retired police officers to carry concealed weapons, if they are trained and have a proper identification and authorization from their agencies.

Unarmed action
I am not suggesting officers meet deadly force with empty hands. However, an active shooter incident may literally be do or die. Officers are warriors. When a warrior is armed, any weapon he carries he should be trained with to the point that it's an extension of his being. Officers should also train in the naked warrior philosophy, so that even when unarmed, they are deadly and dangerous, should they have to protect innocents.

Officers should ask themselves:

  • Do I train in disarming techniques for the worst case scenario?
  • Do I practice when-then thinking while I am off-duty in order to identify all of the deadly, improvised weapons I could use as a last resort?
  • Could I apply deadly force effectively with my own hands?

The active shooter is a very real challenge of our time. Any one or more of us reading this article may be faced with this situation. It doesn’t matter if you are a patrol officer, police chief, sheriff, deputy or school liaison officer, or whether you are on or off-duty. Somewhere, someday, an active shooter may be a threat to you, your family and the people you are sworn to protect. When you least expect it, you may have to ride to the sound of guns. Be prepared.

About the author

Lt. Dan Marcou retired as a highly decorated police lieutenant and SWAT Commander with 33 years of full time law enforcement experience. He is a nationally recognized police trainer in many police disciplines and is a Master Trainer in the State of Wisconsin. He has authored three novels The Calling: The Making of a Veteran Cop , S.W.A.T. Blue Knights in Black Armor, and Nobody's Heroes are all available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. Visit his website and contact Dan Marcou

  1. Tags
  2. Mass Casualty Incidents
  3. Use of Force
  4. Gun Legislation & Law Enforcement
  5. Evergreen

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