logo for print

P1 First Person: Respect our enemy

Editor's Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Matthew Magolan. In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an e-mail with your story.

By Matthew Magolan
PoliceOne Member

“Strategically we should despise all our enemies, but tactically we should take them all seriously.” — Mao Tse Tung[1]

Although his politics are decidedly un-American, few can argue that Mao Tse Tung was  a brilliant guerilla warrior.[2] Even the United States Marines study the wisdom offered by Chairman Mao on asymmetrical warfare.

I often consider the quote above when reading articles about active shooters.

"Crackpot," "coward," "loser," "scumbag," "mutant," "monster," "social misfit," "insidious," "loathsome," "withdrawn," "spineless," "weak," "lunatic," "scum-sucker," "freak," "jackass," "bastard" and "psycho" are all words I’ve read in police literature used to describe the perpetrators of active shooter incidents.

The use of this language shows an alarming disrespect for our active shooter enemy. How are we in law enforcement going to fully prepare for the next active shooter if we disrespect our enemy? It is a dangerous game to dismiss the innovativeness and lethality of the active shooter threat.

I found every one of the disrespectful words above by searching for “active shooter” on Google at home and downloading the articles from law enforcement magazine online archives, websites or re-postings without needing to prove my law enforcement credentials.

Why is this an issue?
Simply put, the individuals who are planning future active shooter events are following in the footsteps of those that have gone before. They are part of a competitive peer group, they admire and respect each other and, more importantly, each attacker copies successful elements and learns from the mistakes of his or her peers.

Eric Harris, mastermind of the Columbine attack, looked to Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing for inspiration. Seung Hui Cho, of Virginia Tech infamy, learned from the Columbine killers and called both Harris and Klebold martyrs in the media packet he mailed to NBC shortly before his shooting rampage at Norris Hall. 

Steven Kazmierczak, who killed six and left 18 wounded in an auditorium at Northern Illinois University, respected Cho and studied his writings left in the wake of the VT shootings.[3]

Kazmierczak bought magazines and a holster for his Glock from an online firearms dealer used by Cho. Cho chained the doors to Norris Hall shut, tactically innovating beyond those that went before him.

Using the chains allowed Cho to claim the honor of highest active shooter body count in the United States. Make no mistake, the record for highest body count is the goal of someone, somewhere, planning an attack right now as you read this.

Be prepared.

The active shooter community of the past, the present and the future is a tradition of thought and tactics. Most active shooters are above average in intelligence and highly motivated. If we fail to see the active shooter as an evolving, creative and serious threat, we limit the effectiveness of our response.

We must not be dismissive or disrespectful of this tradition and we must recognize the valuable lessons law enforcement has learned from it. The blood spilled in active shooter incidents has and will continue to teach law enforcement important tactical lessons. Respect the threat. Understand the threat. Stop the threat.

We would be foolish to believe that what we collectively say, as police, in our trade publications and on our websites will go unnoticed by active shooters. These individuals are always looking for another way in which society has misunderstood them and created yet another justification, in their minds, for their drastic actions.

Each of us has witnessed firsthand what even a perceived disrespectful slight can do to the actions of a subject we are dealing with on a call for service. I, for one, have found myself in a full-on brawl with a subject because of a poorly timed, misguided and unprofessional slight by a paramedic on scene.

There are, right at this very moment, people preparing attacks on high schools, universities, malls, churches or other soft targets in the United States. These individuals, or even more frightening, groups of individuals, identify with Harris, Klebold, Kazmierczak, Cho, Anders Behring Breivik and now James Eagan Holmes. These individuals understand the statements made by the killers who have gone before.

And by "understand," I mean deeply feel the emotions and truly empathize with the reasoning behind these murderous acts. Breivik has left behind a document that is part ideological manifesto and part training manual for the next active shooter to follow.

I’d be willing to bet you my next paycheck that there is already someone out there studying, admiring and empathizing with Breivik’s message.

Lt. Dan Marcou introduced us to the critical stages of an active shooter in his article Five Stages of the "Active Shooter."[4] The way that the law enforcement community addresses active shooters in print during these early stages could have a profound effect on the way the next event unfolds. How long before a future perpetrator makes the next evolution in the active shooter modus operandi and takes on the police saying, "I'll show you a coward!"

I can say, unequivocally, that an active shooter taking on police is not a stretch and, in fact, a website of Eric Harris before the Columbine attack stated, "i [sic] don’t care if I live or die in the shootout all I want to do is kill and injure as many of you pricks as I can!"[5]

There were at least three exchanges of gunfire between Harris and deputies during the early stages of the Columbine school attack [5]. Harris targeted police and other first responders with secondary improvised explosive devices in the Columbine attack.

The bombs were hidden in Harris’ and Klebolds’ cars parked in the school parking lot where Harris assumed correctly during his planning that police, fire/rescue and the press would stage after the attack commenced. Additional casualties were avoided only because Harris was not a skilled bomb-maker.

The main reason there was not a life-and-death shootout between the killers and police at Columbine was due to the fact that the police response in 1999 was a slow methodical clear of the building.

If you apply modern rapid deployment patrol techniques to Columbine, you likely would have had a Hollywoodesque final shootout ending. There has also been a great deal of talk in our collective literature recently about using the statistics of past active shooters to dictate how an individual officer should respond during an active shooter.

Some trainers and writers advocate that because a majority of active shooters have historically chosen to take their own lives rather than confront responding police, we should respond alone.

In my department, we’re trained in the contact–cover principal and are dispatched in pairs to most calls. So if we go to a domestic disturbance with two officers, why would one officer choose to enter the most dangerous situation of his or her career alone? To save lives? A killed officer cannot save lives.

Of course, the counter argument is that a single officer responding to an active shooter alone will follow sound tactical doctrine and, statistically speaking, be able to neutralize the active shooter. Is responding to an active shooter alone sound tactical doctrine in the first place?

Unfortunately, we know that information coming in to us during an extraordinary event like an active shooter is dubious at best and outright wrong at worst. What happens if the active shooter you respond to alone is the first Beslan or Mumbai style attack in America?

You're dead. You've become a victim of the learning curve.

On August 5th, 2011 we learned of a foiled plot at Lakeshore High School in suburban New Orleans, Louisiana. Three 15-year-old boys plotted what they called "Day Zero," referred to as "an incredible and devastating attack" by Sheriff Jack Strain [6].

According to Capt. George Bonnett, a spokesman for the sheriff, the plot also included "indiscriminate shooting, as well as firing at any sheriff’s deputies or other officers they saw and taking their weapons"[6] (emphasis mine).

On August 15th, 2011 Tampa Bay, Florida police arrested a 17-year-old for plotting a pipe-bombing at the high school he had been expelled from the year before. The officials close to the case told news reporters that the suspect “wanted to do something that was more spectacular than Columbine.[7]"

This is not the future — this is now. People are plotting the next evolution: We must be prepared.

I've always liked the phrase taught to first responders the world over, "Don't become part of the problem." Don’t become another victim. Taking this concept one step further, don't become a victim of the learning curve. Think outside the box and push your When/Then thinking as far as possible.

Looking at history to predict the future is an important first step. But if we ONLY look backwards we will always be behind the curve, reacting to the next evolution rather than proactively preparing for the next threat. I know for damn sure that when I respond to the active shooter call in my community I’m not going into that gunfight thinking, "Statistically, this guy is going to run when he sees me and then he’s going to kill himself."

Complexity Theory tells us that there are far too many variables in an event like an active shooter to statistically predict the actions of a single actor.

We must think outside the box and use our own imagination to consider what is possible. What is the next evolution in a new era of active shooters?

If we don't think about it, people with malice in their heart will think of it for us and then we'll have to scramble to catch up, potentially losing fellow officers to the learning curve. Before July 23rd, 2011, who would have thought that a summer camp for children would be the site of the deadliest spree shooting by one man in history? And by a man in a police uniform no less.

And on July 20th, 2012 James Eagan Holmes used an improvised gas munitions to begin his attack in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater.[8]

We must never be the least bit dismissive of the active shooter threat, or the capabilities of those who will perpetrate the killings.

The next time you're online learning to become a better officer, imagine a man or men, woman or women (Let’s not forget the University of Alabama faculty shooting) sitting at their computers diligently reading, plotting and planning to kill in a violent shooting spree. Perhaps their research includes bomb-making, small arms training and studying the floor plans of their target buildings.

Perhaps they're ordering police uniforms. Imagine these people doing their homework, studiously preparing for their big day by reading information on their favorite ghosts of active shooters past, admiring their predecessors while moving toward their own date with destiny. Imagine these people reading about what the police response will be.

Imagine these people finding an article in a police magazine online archive or on a police website describing their peer group as "freaks," "cowards" or "spineless." Imagine these people saying to themselves, "I'm going to teach those cops a lesson," determining to kill as many police officers as they can.

What purpose does this language serve to enhance our collective understanding of the individuals who might commit an act of mass violence?

We do not have the luxury to dismiss these individuals with simplified tags like "mutant," "weak" or "psycho." Let’s leave the over-simplifications to the uninformed.

Police are tasked to stand between the community and those that will inflict harm upon them. We do ourselves and our communities a great disservice when we are dismissive and disrespectful of the active shooter threat. Respect the threat. Understand the threat.

Stop the threat.

[1] Quotations from Mao Tse Tung, Speech at the Moscow Meeting of Communist and Workers' Parties (November 18, 1957); by Mao Tse Tung, Peking Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1966.
[2] Mao Tse-tung on Guerilla Warfare, Fleet Marine Force Reference Publication FMFRP 12-18, United States Marine Corps, Washington DC, 5 April 1989.
[3] Portrait of the School Shooter as a Young Man by David Vann (www.esquire.com/print-this/steven-kazmierczak-0808), Originally Published in August 2008 Esquire Magazine, Accessed online 04/13/2010.
[4] Five Phases of the “Active Shooter”; By Lt. Dan Marcou, http://www.patc.com/weeklyarticles/print/active-shooter-08.pdf, 2008.
[5] Columbine; by Dave Cullen, 12 Books, 2009.
[6] Sheriff: School shooting plot foiled in Louisiana; www.ksla.com, Published 08/05/2011, updated 08/06/2011, Accessed 08/28/2011.
[7] Friend: Tampa High School Bomb Plot Suspect Spoke of ‘Another Columbine’; www.foxnews.com, Published 08/18/2011, Accessed 08/28/2011.
[8] Aurora Shooting: 71 shot in movie theater during 'Dark Knight Rises' premiere; By Jennifer Waite, http://www.examiner.com/article/aurora-shooting-71-shot-movie-theater-during-dark-knight-rises-premiere, Published 07/20/2012, Accessed 07/27/2012.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Thanks! You've been successfully signed up for the P1 SWAT Newsletter!

Copyright © 2017 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.