7 lessons from the Virginia Beach active shooting
Each active shooter incident has its own fingerprint that law enforcement can learn from
On May 31, 2019, a City of Virginia Beach employee entered a municipal building and murdered 12 people with a pair of handguns. The employee was shot by responding police during an extended gun battle and died during transport to hospital. Many others were wounded, including one police officer, who was saved by his body armor.
The Virginia Beach active shooting is the latest in a growing trend of atrocities committed by evil and disturbed individuals, and many elements of the story are similar to past events. It’s important to identify these repeating trends to aid in preparations and training. It’s also important to note that each of these shootings has its own fingerprint. It’s useful to identify uncommon or unique characteristics, and determine whether current police tactics, techniques and procedures should be modified to account for them.
Many of the critical details about the Virginia Beach active shooting are still unknown at this early stage, but publicly available information leads us to the following observations about this attack:
1. Warning signs and mental preparation
At this early stage officials are hard-pressed to identify a motive for the killings. The worker was an employee in “good standing” whose work was “satisfactory.” He was not known to be facing any disciplinary action, according to the city manager. Friends and coworkers report there was no history of violence or conflict with this individual. It seems unlikely that the attacker suddenly snapped and decided to kill his coworkers and bosses, and in time we may discover that there was a history that pointed to this violent outburst, but for now we’re left with the unsettling truth that sometimes there are no readily visible warning signs to violence.
We spend a lot of time discussing “red flags” and teaching people to stay alert for cues of pending trouble, but sometimes we’re completely surprised to find evil among us. This surprise often results in denial, with individuals trying to explain away or rationalize the horror right in front of them. In Virginia Beach, employees reported they thought “it was a drill,” even when they saw injured victims or personally encountered the murderer with a weapon in his hand. Others reported that they thought the sound of gunfire was a pneumatic nail gun. Law enforcement efforts to prepare the public for these situations must address the reality of shock and the denial instinct as part of instruction on mental awareness and preparation. The public needs to be trained about the dangers inherent to denial, and oriented toward trusting their gut feelings, instead of trying to dismiss them.
The shooter began his attack outside the municipal building, shooting someone in the parking lot. He then moved inside and began to shoot people on each of the three floors in the building.
When police arrived, they had to locate the shooter in a maze of corridors, rooms and stairwells, and a running gun battle erupted as the shooter was eventually cornered into a room, where he barricaded and made his final stand.
The highly mobile nature of the shooter complicated the police response and should strongly influence many aspects of police training and preparations. Consider the following:
- Are your officers trained to shoot while they are moving?
- Are they trained to move tactically as individuals, and as small teams, in both indoor and outdoor environments?
- Are patrol officers and tactical teams practiced in containment, blocking, pincer and ambush tactics to defeat a mobile attacker?
- Can your agency move personnel and equipment quickly from one location to the next, even through gridlocked traffic or past natural or manmade obstacles, to keep up with highly mobile killers?
The first officers to arrive on scene were apparently detective supervisors and K9 units, who ran to the scene from a police station 100 yards from the location. These officers made entry and located the suspect, then engaged him – along with other responding officers – in a gun battle that lasted approximately 22 minutes, based on radio traffic.
While FBI statistics estimate almost 70% of active shootings are over in less than 5 minutes, and 36% are over in less than 2 minutes, events like Virginia Beach indicate that we need to be ready to fight for much longer. Among other things, this has implications on policies that address the minimum equipment (firearms, ammunition, armor, medical, lights and communications) that must be carried by all officers on duty.
Could you carry on a gunfight for 22 minutes with what you have on your person? As we’ve discussed previously, a detective can be suddenly thrust into a situation where they might need more substantial equipment than what is typically carried by officers in soft clothes – they don’t get a pass, based on their assignment. The middle of a gunfight is no time to figure out that your single-stack, subcompact gun isn’t enough for the job.
Once again, the Virginia Beach shooting exposed a weakness in preparations when it came time for officers to get through locked doors. Multiple calls were made by officers for breaching tools and keys to open doors that had been purposely barricaded by workers (as we’ve been teaching them to do for years) or just routinely secured.
In the final showdown with the suspect, officers had to breach a door to the room he had barricaded himself in, shortly after the suspect had fired at them through the same door. We’ve been talking about this as a community since at least San Bernardino, but we’re not making the necessary changes. Patrol vehicles need to be outfitted with basic breaching tools, and facility managers in public and private buildings need to install Knox Box-type systems to provide public safety responders the appropriate access to keys and access badges. This will not only enhance response time but will also prevent injuries and protect property from unnecessary damage.
5. Suspect’s weapons
The suspect in Virginia Beach reportedly used a pair of .45 caliber pistols with extended magazines, which would make his choice similar to the weapon used by the Borderline Bar attacker in Thousand Oaks, California. Since active shooters often study previous attacks and attempt to mimic elements of them, it’s possible the Virginia Beach shooter’s choice of firearms and/or magazines could have been influenced by the Borderline shooter, especially since police are reporting that one of the firearms was obtained sometime in 2018 (potentially, post-Borderline).
What’s more interesting about Virginia Beach though, is that the shooter used a suppressor on his pistol. We haven’t seen this in prior active shootings, and it’s worth the time to consider the tactical implications. From the reporting available, it doesn’t appear that the use of the suppressor negatively affected law enforcement’s ability to locate the shooter within the structure, and it also didn’t hide the sound of gunfire from the potential victims, many of whom reported hearing it. A suppressor doesn’t eliminate noise, of course, but only lowers it to safer levels. Still, it might be worthwhile to consider whether using a suppressor could give a suspect an advantage that we have to account for. Consider, for example, that using a suppressor might allow a suspect to retain more of his hearing after shooting a firearm indoors multiple times, which might make noise discipline even more important for responding officers.
6. Concealment versus cover
The Virginia Beach killer fired at officers through a door and wall as they made contact with the barricaded suspect. We’ve seen this tactic used in other shootings, most notably the 2009 Mixon shooting in Oakland where two SWAT officers were killed after the suspect shot at them from inside a bedroom closet.
The report from Virginia Beach underscores the importance of being mindful that concealment is not cover. If a suspect is barricaded inside a room, he can still place effective fire on officers outside by shooting through thinly constructed internal walls and doors. As a result, officers need to consider their position and movements carefully. It may not be wise to stage in hallways outside rooms where a suspect is barricaded, particularly near anticipated entryways. Officers should transit these danger areas quickly, and not linger there. Noise discipline (avoiding talking, radio use and equipment brushing against walls) may become even more important to prevent the suspect from learning your location.
Finally, if officers are forced to remain in this danger area by circumstances, they should seek the best cover available and might consider taking a low position to get below the area where a suspect is likely to fire blind shots that are directed at standing officers.
7. Attack resolution expectations
In an FBI study of active shooter events between 2000 and 2013, 56.3% ended with the shooter fleeing the scene, surrendering, or committing suicide. These numbers mirror the results of an ALERRT study, which indicates about 49% of active shootings end via surrender, escape, or suicide. The fact that these killers voluntarily stop their attacks with such frequency has an influence on police tactics and expectations. We’re currently teaching officers to apply pressure on the shooter as quickly as possible – even if acting solo – because we expect that the killers will stop killing in half or more of the cases. I think solo entry protocols are where we need to be, but events like Virginia Beach remind us that there’s still a percentage of shooters out there who will fight to the last, and we must be ready for them.
The Virginia Beach killer shot at police through doors and walls and did not surrender, flee, or kill himself. The only way that police were able to stop the Virginia Beach killer was to injure him with gunfire to the point that he was no longer able to resist. This example has implications for training. It’s good for us to recognize that active shooters will often voluntarily cease hostilities, but we must be careful about setting up a mental expectation in officers that they will do so. Training needs to instill a proper mindset in officers – they must embrace the notion that the killer will not stop until they are stopped by the officer. Officers must not be led to believe that the suspect will “do the job for them” if they put some pressure on him, but instead must be prepared to locate, close with and stop the threat in a tactically appropriate manner for the circumstances. Scenarios and training exercises must be careful to reflect these priorities.
We will learn more about the Virginia Beach shooting in the days to come, but the important thing right now is to take stock of what we know and ask whether the events in Virginia Beach have an influence on tactics, techniques, procedures and training. If there are things we need to address, the time to do it is now.
God bless you all and be safe out there.