What cops can learn from civilian active shooter response training

In a live-fire active shooter response training presented by Mike Wood, participants worked to be mentally, emotionally, and physically ready for the very worst


A few months ago, I participated in an excellent active shooter response training presented by PoliceOne Contributor Mike Wood. Wood — a retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel (26 years of service) who used to drive KC-10A refueling tankers through the skies — is an NRA Law Enforcement Division-certified Firearms Instructor and the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis. The training Wood presented was largely for civilians, but many of the lessons are equally applicable to police — particularly off-duty cops.

In some of the civilian-focused live-fire training currently out there, participants burn through 500-600 rounds of ammo. This “turning money into sound” training does not necessarily lead to an increase in skills or abilities — in fact, it can do more harm than good.

In Wood’s course, we spent a significant portion of the day with our pistols holstered. In fact, for the first 90 minutes or so, we stood in a semicircle listening to important information Wood had gathered in his research into active killer events, as well as doing some mental calisthenics to prepare for a life-or-death fight against an active killer.

The favored rifle of choice for terrorist attackers is the AK-47. We were asked, “Would you rather continue the fight with your pistol, or pick up this rifle to even the odds?” The answer, obviously, is a no-brainer. (PoliceOne Image)
The favored rifle of choice for terrorist attackers is the AK-47. We were asked, “Would you rather continue the fight with your pistol, or pick up this rifle to even the odds?” The answer, obviously, is a no-brainer. (PoliceOne Image)

Knowledge and mindset
Wood underscored the fact that there sometimes are other ways you can contribute to the successful resolution of an active killer event than hunting the attackers. Particularly for civilians and off-duty officers not wearing body armor or carrying a police radio, one could summon help, provide intel to arriving responders, help others to escape, provide first aid, and the like. 

“I can’t stress it enough that we can choose to freeze, fight or flee in these events, and the hardest one for some of you is probably going to be the flee option, because it goes against your nature. However, this is probably the best option in many cases. Going up against a rifle- and grenade-armed team of attackers by yourself with your single stack 9mm pistol is not a great way to reach retirement. And if you have family with you, there should be no question what your primary responsibility is — get them to safety,” Wood said.

“If you choose — or are forced — to fight, then fight like a cool-headed predator. Be stealthy, use cover and concealment, plan your ambush carefully, and use every advantage you have. Hit them when they’re weak — during reloads or malfunctions or when their back is turned to you,” Wood said.

Wood also reminded us that there are distinctions between the types of active threats we might face — the motivations of a tango are different than a criminal, and their skill levels may be dissimilar. Further, we may encounter a single attacker with limited weapons and very little pre-planning or a pair (or a group) of hardened attackers with enhanced weaponry who had conducted some degree of pre-planning. Our tactics — up to and including our decision to engage at all — may be affected by all those variables (assuming we have access to that information as the gunfire is happening).

Wood pointed out that a mentally ill or criminally motivated gunman will probably behave differently than a determined terrorist faced with armed resistance — whether that be from uniformed officers, off-duty officers, or concealed-carry citizens.

“Know your enemy,” Wood said. “The more you know about the people who do these kinds of attacks and the tactics they use, the more you’ll be prepared to take them on. It’s helpful to know that 40 percent of the rapid mass murderers in one study ate their own gun when resistance was encountered, or that intervention by a single citizen stopped eight out of ten rapid mass murders. Don’t overestimate, nor underestimate your enemy. Take them as you find them — and take them out.”

Is the line ready?
With our minds filled with information and motivation, we topped off our magazines and made our way to the line. We had targets positioned at different distances — a staggered pair of lines with one about five yards behind the first. Some target stands also had a secondary target — a paper plate extended on a small piece of cardboard away from the leg of the stand — to simulate shooting at a gunman in a prone position.

Because of the use of highly unstable TATP explosives — especially within vests in places like the Middle East — head shots are preferred to avoid accidental detonations. This was starkly demonstrated during the ISIS terrorist attack on Ataturk Airport in Turkey. One of the attackers was shot in the leg by an officer, who approached him and then quickly ran away. The terrorist was left to detonate the explosive device. Had the officer delivered a shot to the cerebral cortex, that explosion probably would not have happened.

In addition to encountering a suicide vest — a common tactic used to ‘up the body count’ is to blow yourself up with a suicide belt when capture is imminent — attackers here in the United States also have used body armor. Although the majority of rapid mass murderers don’t actually use body armor or wear suicide vests, we worked headshots almost exclusively in our exercises. Prepare for the worst was one of the themes of the day.

Consequently, we were shown the best places on the skull for immediate deanimation. There is a ring around the skull that begins right between the eyes, goes around both sides to the top of the ears, and meets in back where the round part of the head meets the very top of the neck. In essence, imagine putting a headband on and pulling it over your eyes and down slightly in the back — that’s the target area we worked with. However, Wood also explained that in a gunfight, you may not always have a great shot at that zone.

“Upper center mass is still a good primary target area if there are no contraindications — no armor, explosives, LBE, etcetera,” Wood said. “Take what you can get. An upper center mass shot is easier to pull off than a good head shot on a moving target. Remember, not all head shots are created equal.”

In the debrief, Wood added, “If you found it difficult to make a clean head shot on paper from ten paces with your pistol, just think how much more difficult it would be to make that shot in the chaos and confusion of a real incident — with the target moving, the smoke, the gunshots, the explosions, and a swirl of no-shoots moving through your line of sight. This is no easy task, and it’s just as important for you to know the shots you can’t make as the shots you can make.”

Rising to real-world challenges
In terms of the shooting, two specific drills were the highlights of the day because they forced you to solve a problem that most of the participants had probably not previously encountered.

1. First aid: Especially if you are off duty, it’s more likely you’ll need your first aid skills than your gunfighting skills. This is as true in caring for others as well as self-care if you engage the gunman and are hit. Consequently one of the scenarios dictated that one of our arms had been badly hit. We had to apply a tourniquet to the wounded arm (support side) and then re-engage the target one handed. 

“Don’t forget, you’ll be on your own in the ‘Hot Zone’ for a long time before you get medical help — more than long enough to bleed out,” Wood said. “First aid — including self-aid — is critical.”

2. Battlefield pick-up: The favored rifle of choice for terrorist attackers is the AK-47 — and to a lesser extent, its variant, the AK-74. In one scenario, we assumed that we’d defeated a gunman with our pistol, but were still faced with additional attackers armed with AKs. We were asked, “Would you rather continue the fight with your pistol, or pick up this rifle to even the odds?” The answer, obviously, is a no-brainer.

For those who had never fired an AK, Wood briefed us on its operation and we took turns putting hits on a steel target roughly 30 yards downrange. This helped hammer home how important it is to know how various weapons work — particularly systems favored by the enemy.

Inspiration in perspiration
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned that day was when I looked around during a break — it was a reinforcement of the idea that American warriors are everywhere. In addition to the feeling of brotherhood I felt with the men and women in attendance, I was inspired by the fact that these law-abiding, pro-Second Amendment folks had taken a day off — which they could have spent doing countless other things — to train to be prepared for the worst day imaginable.

The statistical probability that an active killer will strike in presence of this group of men and women is pretty remote — but we all are now better prepared to make the decision to flee or fight. If it is flee, we know what we can still do to help solve the problem. If it is fight, we are more ready to move to contact, find the killer, neutralize target, and render aid to the wounded.

Mentally, emotionally, and physically, we all had a good workout that day.

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