Why solo-officer active shooter response should be trained

Active shooter incidents create a time problem for innocent victims and the emergency responders trying to save their lives


Article updated on February 22, 2018

The events that took place at Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, changed the way law enforcement trained and responded to active shooter incidents. The pictures and accounts from this act of cowardice produced tears and intense anger. Officers, trainers, supervisors and command staff recognized the need for a different approach. 

Since then, we have had numerous examples of active shooter incidents. Although these acts of terrorism have differences, they all share one common element: the murderers who committed these acts have a clear desire to kill as many people as possible. 

Emergency personnel carrying a volunteer with simulated injuries is carried during a training exercise for an active shooter at Hopewell Elementary School, Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in West Chester, Ohio. (AP Image)
Emergency personnel carrying a volunteer with simulated injuries is carried during a training exercise for an active shooter at Hopewell Elementary School, Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in West Chester, Ohio. (AP Image)

The traditional response of forming perimeters and calling in specialized teams no longer applies to active shooter incidents. These murderers intend to terrorize and kill as many people as possible. Initially, training evolved to emphasize a small group of officers meeting up, getting into some sort of predetermined formation – diamond, triangle, T and whatnot – and “going to the sound of guns.”  But an improved method grew out of the reality that these tactics, as good as they sound, have not worked as envisioned.

Solo-Officer Response

During past active killer/shooter training classes, I've listened to instructors explain some of these team concepts before going out of their way to belittle a newer tactic that has been gaining traction over the past seven or eight years – the solo-officer response. I’ll give this instructor the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to ignorance and a lack of understanding regarding solo-officer response tactics. 

Most instructors who haven’t been exposed to these tactics believe hunting cells are safer for officers and prevent blue-on-blue shootings, and they’re right. However, this completely misses the fundamental problem with the hunting cell concept. Active shooter incidents create a time problem for innocent victims and the emergency responders trying to save their lives. 

If officers are trained to wait for additional personnel to arrive to form a hunting cell, then more innocent people will be hurt or killed. Ron Borsch, PACT Consultant Group, was perhaps the first person to introduce me to the solo-officer response concept. He believes time is the number one enemy facing officers and innocent victims during active shooter incidents. His statistics show active shooters target most of their victims inside the first several minutes. He says the average time for calls to be made to 911, the information dispatched to officers, and officers to arrive on scene could be five to seven minutes or longer. 

What this means is we have between one and three minutes to locate and stop the killing. It’s a race against the clock to save innocent lives.  Just look at the September 28, 2016, incident in at Townville Elementary School in Townville, SC. The first officer arrived on scene seven minutes after the first call to 9-1-1.

Ask yourself this question: How many rounds can I fire accurately in one to three minutes? The answer probably depends on how much ammunition you can carry. The same is true for these murderers.

Unless multiple officers are arriving at the same time, many trainers have concluded the best tactic may be a solo-officer response. Of course, a specific incident may dictate otherwise, but the first officer to arrive at the scene is the first officer to arrive at the fight. According to Don Alwes, the lead instructor for the National Tactical Officers Association's Police Response to Active Shooter and Workplace Violence courses, in nearly 660 documented active killer incidents, no known incidents have been stopped using one of the predetermined team formations.

A Swarming Response

Team tactics may be used depending on the context of the event. However, if innocent people are still being killed when the first officer arrives on scene, the deciding factor should be getting life-saving assistance to innocent victims quickly. Providing rapid life-saving assistance to innocent victims is the basic premise of the solo-officer response. 

Individual officers making multiple entries into a large building can move quicker and cover more ground than multiple officers in a single formation entering from the same access point.

George T. Williams of Cutting Edge Training is another advocate of multiple officers making multiple entries from different access points. He believes our current approach to active killer training is based on the faulty belief that law enforcement officers will be able to respond in sufficient numbers to stop the killing. He believes a “swarm” of officers entering from multiple access points will cause the active killer to feel surrounded. 

Active killers do not want to face armed police officers coming toward them from multiple directions. These murderers are looking for easy victims. Williams believes that, “Officers utilizing a multiple-angle attack are likely to create flanking problems for these murderers effectively slowing or stopping the killing. This anxiety provides a chance for a tactical resolution either from the killer developing an inward focus rather than killing (survival) or a quicker pre-planned resolution (suicide).” 

The argument that hunting cells can prevent blue-on-blue shootings is a valid argument that is easily addressed in training. Solo-officer responses to active shooting incidents can create a risk of blue-on-blue shootings. However, as Gordon Graham says, predictable is preventable. Solo-officer response training can make officers aware of these risks. Drills and scenarios can be scripted to test their responses when faced with these conditions. Officers need to be reminded to shoot what they know, not what they think. Threat assessment is critical in any use-of-force situation, and active shooting incidents are no different.

A Solid History

The reality is solo-officer tactics have a proven track record. Getting officers to the scene quickly and responding with appropriate force is not a new active shooter tactic. Don Alwes reports that nearly 63% of active killer incidents stopped by law enforcement were stopped by a single officer. Alwes adds that around 30% of these incidents are stopped by a two-officer response.  Adding these numbers up proves it: 93% of active shooter incidents stopped by law enforcement are stopped by one or two officers.

Solo-officer response had been used in several incidents before the tragedy of Columbine:

  • On October 16, 1991, a Texas Department of Public Safety officer ran into a crowded restaurant in Killeen (Texas) during an active shooter incident. This officer chased the mass murderer into a bathroom where the murderer killed himself. Nearly 80 people were inside the restaurant when this occurred. 23 people were killed and 20 were injured. Is there any doubt more people would have been killed if the officer had waited for additional cover?
  • On June 20, 1994, a lone, 24-year-old Air Force Security Policeman Andy Brown stopped an active killer at Fairchild AFB. This murderer killed five people and wounded 22 others. If the killer had not been stopped by this courageous young man, there is little doubt more people would have been injured and killed. For more information on this incident, visit www.fairchildhospitalshooting.com.

Recent active killer incidents where solo-officer response tactics were used include:

  • Austin, TX – Downtown (November 2014)
  • Garland, TX – Curtis Culwell Center (May 2015)
  • Hesston, KS – Excel Corp (February 2016)
  • Antigo, WI – Antigo High School (April 2016)
  • Taunton, MA – Silver City Galleria Mall (May 2016)
  • Bristol, TN – Days Inn (July 2016)
  • St. Cloud, MN – Crossroads Center Mall (September 2016)
  • Columbus, OH – Ohio State University (November 2016)
  • Lexington, KY – Transylvania University (April 2017)
  • New York, NY – West Side Hwy Bike Path (October 2017)
  • Lenexa, KS – Costco (November 2017)

All of these incidents were stopped by officers who quickly responded to the scene to confront the killers. None of these incidents were stopped by officers utilizing traditional formations or “hunting cells.” 

Conclusion

This can be a difficult concept for many instructors, command staff and officers to grasp. Officer safety should not be the reason instructors fail to consider including solo-officer response tactics in their active shooter training curriculum. Officer safety is about mitigating risk, not avoiding risk. 

There’s nothing safe about a single officer running to confront a mass murderer. If additional assistance is seconds away, officers should wait and go in as a team. Two sets of eyes, ears and weapons are better than one. But if additional assistance is minutes away, time is the first and worst enemy. What if your child needs to be saved from being victimized by a mass murderer? We would all want officers to contact and eliminate the threat as quickly as possible to save our child.

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