Rapid response: 7 early observations from the Midland and Odessa shootings
These shootings show just how difficult it can be for law enforcement to stop a highly mobile killer
On August 31, 2019, a suspect shot and wounded a trooper from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) during a misdemeanor traffic stop. The suspect fled by vehicle toward the West Texas towns of Midland and Odessa, shooting random victims as he drove past.
At one point, the suspect hijacked a postal service van and continued to shoot more victims, including a police officer from Midland and another from Odessa.
The suspect was killed by police in the parking lot of a movie theater complex after they rammed the van to terminate the pursuit. As of press time, reports indicate that 7 victims were killed, and another 22 were injured by the suspect.
The violent crimes in Midland and Odessa occurred just a little more than 34 hours ago as this is being written. While we will certainly learn more details in the days to come, there are already important reminders and observations emerging from this horrible ordeal in Texas that law enforcement must consider:
1. No routine traffic stops
The suspect was pulled over for a minor “failure to signal” traffic violation on the interstate. Initial reports indicate that the Texas DPS trooper was shot by the rifle-armed suspect on the officer’s initial approach to the vehicle, perhaps through the window of the car.
It’s axiomatic in law enforcement that “there are no routine traffic stops,” but the truth is that officers perform these activities so regularly without serious incident that it’s easy to approach them with less attention and caution than they deserve. To be clear, there is no indication that the DPS trooper in this incident was anything less than professional and cautious, but the injury reminds us that you really don’t know who you are approaching, what they’re thinking, what they’ve done and what they plan to do when you walk up on a car that’s been stopped for a minor violation.
Remember that the Oklahoma City bomber was arrested by a highway patrol officer who stopped the mass murderer for driving without a license plate, and soon discovered that he had an illegally possessed concealed firearm.
The threat to officer and public safety is not proportional to the nature of the vehicle code violation, so exercise all due caution and use good tactics for every vehicle stop, no matter how minor the reason for the contact.
2. Highly mobile killers
The Midland and Odessa shootings show just how difficult it can be for law enforcement to stop a highly mobile killer.
The suspect in Texas was highly mobile, leaving a trail of mayhem behind him as he drove through two different jurisdictions and fired on innocents at no less than 15 different locations. Police had a hard time identifying the killer’s location and catching up to him, particularly after he shot a postal worker and took her vehicle (which initially led police to believe there were two shooters on the loose). The chaos at each scene hindered the police pursuit, as officers had to get through gridlocked streets and intersections in their attempt to catch up with the attacker.
If one reckless, impulsive spree killer could cause this much of a disruption in an area that’s not densely populated, imagine what a team of disciplined attackers with an organized plan could do, as they struck geographically separated targets, simultaneously, in a heavily populated urban area. Such Complex, Coordinated Attacks (CCAs) have the potential to paralyze large urban centers, and we need to have a plan for how we will combat them. Agencies need to consider:
- Plans for alternative deployment routes when major arteries are clogged;
- Plans for redirecting traffic and unplugging major transportation arteries;
- Alternative transportation methods (aircraft, boats, motorcycles, bicycles, foot deployment, etc.) when normal patrol and tactical vehicles can’t get through;
- Dispersing assets (personnel, facilities, vehicles) so that your entire force isn’t trapped behind a single chokepoint;
- Tactics for rapidly deploying officers to likely targets in advance of a mobile killer;
- Tactics for establishing perimeters and nets along likely travel routes to catch the mobile killer;
- Ensuring communication systems are robust enough to handle a flood of 911 calls in the killer’s wake;
- Ensuring radio and data systems are robust enough to handle a surge of activity without melting down;
- Ensuring personnel are trained in good radio discipline, to keep busy frequencies usable;
- Ensuring that mutual aid plans are in good order, and include several layers for the event that primary resources are unavailable to respond, because they’re similarly committed.
3. Casualty care and priorities
Officers in Texas were forced to bypass wounded citizens at multiple scenes as they desperately tried to locate and stop the killer. This will be a hard thing for many officers to do, but the best way to stop the creation of additional victims is to shut down the killer as quickly as possible.
Are agency leaders communicating this expectation to officers and reinforcing it through good training? Are police leaders explaining this in advance to the public, and providing them the education, training and tools necessary for them to self-aid until professional assistance becomes available?
4. Mindset and preparation
The citizens of Midland and Odessa probably didn’t believe their towns would be the site of the next mass killing, in the same fashion that the citizens in San Bernardino, CA and Garland, TX never believed their cities would be the sites of Islamic terror attacks.
Public safety professionals cannot afford to engage in this type of willful disbelief, however. We know, through hard experience, that evil is pervasive and can strike anywhere, at any time, so we must be ready to combat it. Does your agency regularly conduct realistic mass casualty training in concert with fire and EMS? Are individual patrol officers equipped with the right tools and tactics to confront an active killer? Do officers mentally prepare for WHEN this will happen, or do they casually lapse into “IF it happens” thinking that will leave them unprepared?
It’s instructive that hospital officials in these West Texas towns acknowledged their prior MCI training efforts were the key to their rapid response, and they highly encouraged others to actively prepare for similar incidents, because no town is immune to this threat. We should heed that warning carefully, no matter how small, remote, safe, calm, or unlikely our jurisdiction is.
5. Good Guys: Carry your gun!
As the killer drove through traffic, there were plenty of opportunities for armed citizens and off-duty officers to shoot him, particularly when he encountered backups at intersections and other spots.
Citizens reported the killer driving up alongside them and firing shots at near contact distances, which means he would have been within easy range of their own pistol fire, had they been armed. The killer was finally stopped outside of a crowded entertainment complex, where he probably intended to kill more unarmed victims.
This is simple. The person who leaves their gun behind because, “It will never happen here,” or, “It’s a safe place,” or, “I’ll only be out for a few minutes,” is betting on a losing horse. Nobody is prescient enough to know when or where the next killer will strike, so don’t leave your most valuable form of protection behind because you think you can predict the unpredictable.
Law enforcement leaders have an obligation to enable, train and assist responsible, law-abiding adults in their communities who wish to be armed for their protection and the protection of the greater public. The crimes in Midland and Odessa will inevitably result in calls for additional restrictions on the right to bear arms, but law enforcement must not assist in disarming the good citizens in their community, because it will not inhibit violent criminal activity, and will only hurt the innocent.
6. Patrol training
In some agencies, the tactical team gets all the attention and resources, and patrol plays second fiddle. The Midland and Odessa shootings remind us that patrol officers are the ones who will stop these active killers, long before the armored vehicles full of SWAT cops arrive. Are patrol officers in your agency getting good training and support? Are they being trained in solo entry and MACTAC tactics? Do they have MCI medical kits, rifle-rated armor, ballistic helmets and patrol rifles available to them in their patrol vehicles? Patrol officers will be the front line of defense against these killers, so we need to ensure they’re ready.
7. Vehicle ramming
The killer’s rampage was cut short when his vehicle was rammed by an Odessa police officer, which allowed officers to shoot and kill him. It’s important to teach vehicle immobilization tactics to patrol officers (beyond just the PIT maneuver) so that they understand the best ways to do this. Officers should know where to strike a vehicle, the target speeds required, how to accelerate through the contact, the effects of airbag deployment and other vital pieces of information to better interdict a vehicle-borne attacker. If your agency doesn’t have this kind of expertise on staff, consult other agencies or schools who do.
We salute the first responders in Midland and Odessa for their professional, aggressive and brave response to these cowardly attacks. We will certainly learn more valuable lessons from them as we move forward, but they have given us plenty to consider already. God bless all of you and be safe out there.