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The evolving active shooter threat: Is your police department prepared to respond?

Most of the advances in tactics, techniques, procedures, equipment and training have come about in response to attacks that exposed weaknesses in police preparations


Long before I began my military service, I was an avid reader of military history. As such, I was already aware of the tendency for nations and their militaries to prepare for the last war, when I first encountered it in my own military career.

An infamous example of this concept is the French Maginot Line, a series of connected fortifications, bunkers, obstacles and lines of communication that were constructed in the 1930s along the French border with Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland. The Line was inspired by the static warfare experience of World War I, and was expected to both blunt a potential German invasion, and give the French army time to mobilize and deploy. Significant wealth, resources and energy were consumed in creating the Maginot Line, but it was all for naught in the end.  The highly-mobile German forces simply bypassed the fixed defenses when they attacked through Belgium in May 1940, rendering them useless.

The French experience leading up to World War II is not unique.  It has always been challenging for militaries to avoid the trap of focusing too much on their prior battles, to the exclusion of everything else. While history can be an important teacher, an intense focus on the rearview mirror alone has prevented many military leaders from anticipating new, yet predictable threats.

One of the dangers of basing our preparations solely on our own personal experience, is that we’re left unprepared to deal with threats we’ve not yet encountered. (Photo/Pixabay)
One of the dangers of basing our preparations solely on our own personal experience, is that we’re left unprepared to deal with threats we’ve not yet encountered. (Photo/Pixabay)

The evolution of active shooter response

Law enforcement has not been immune to this same trap. I began pondering this dilemma during a recent active shooter course. When we look at the evolution of the American law enforcement protocols for responding to active shooters (which really isn’t the best term — I prefer Ron Borsch’s “Rapid Mass Murder” to more accurately describe what we’re talking about), we see that most of the advances in tactics, techniques, procedures, equipment and training have come about in response to attacks that exposed weaknesses in our preparations.

The Columbine attack, for instance, taught us that contain and callout tactics were inadequate and rapid entry was required. The rapid entry concept has morphed through various iterations, ranging from four-person entry teams to individual officer response, as a result of lessons learned in other attacks. The 2013 Los Angeles International Airport shooting focused renewed attention on getting EMS into the scene earlier, so that the wounded could be treated within the golden hour, giving a boost to those advocating the rescue task force concept.

Look beyond the fence

All of these improvements have been valuable, but it’s a shame that we had to endure attacks first, before we considered them. After all, many of the warnings and lessons were there for us to see in advance, if we had just looked around.

For example, our friends in Israel have been dealing with the threat of active shooters since at least the 1950s. The Israelis have experienced armed attacks on schools, synagogues, airports and a multitude of public places for decades before American law enforcement actively embraced preparations for active shooter events here. What could we have learned from their example if we had been paying attention? If we had been more proactive and visionary, could we have learned from the Israeli experience and made preemptive changes, instead of making reactionary changes after suffering similar attacks?

Normalcy bias

One of the dangers of basing our preparations solely on our own personal experience, is that we’re left unprepared to deal with threats we’ve not yet encountered. We get really good at solving the old problems, but we fail to anticipate and account for the new ones. 

Take a look at our SWAT teams, for example. In terms of training, equipment and tactics, our SWAT teams are optimized for single scene, fixed operations. Got a building that needs to be breached?  Have a barricaded suspect that needs to be flushed? They’re ready for that.

But how many SWAT teams are ready for a fast-breaking, mobile fight? How many can rapidly mobilize and deploy? How many of them are light and agile enough to keep up with multiple hit and run teams, operating in a symphonic attack? Can that Bearcat get through midtown traffic fast enough? Can team members leapfrog in all that gear over the course of several city blocks in a rolling gunfight? Does your agency have enough personnel to cover two scenes? What about three or four scenes? In a “come as you are” kind of fight where officers can’t rush back to the armored vehicle for needed supplies and equipment, do they have enough on them to sustain and win the fight? Can they maintain communications on the run?

Have SWAT teams, the preferred tool in the active shooter fight, become the modern police equivalent of the Maginot Line? Powerful and capable, but easily outmaneuvered by a nimble enemy using tactics we haven’t encountered before?

Storm clouds on the horizon

Here’s the ugly truth.  It may offend some people, but it’s true.  When it comes to the active shooter threat in America, we’ve been lucky.

Most of our active shooters have lacked true sophistication in their tactics, training and equipment. They have operated primarily as individuals, or as small teams that didn’t understand tactics well enough to multiply their effect. They’ve been lightly armed, rarely armored and few have been successful in using explosives. For the most part, they’ve fought fixed battles and haven’t taken the fight on the road to new locations. Nor have they launched secondary attacks on responding forces. Few active shooters have had any real combat experience, and fewer still were prepared to fight an offensive battle to the death.

Based on what we’re seeing around the world in places like Mumbai, Jakarta, Beslan, Paris, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, this won’t last long. There’s a wealth of attackers out there with superior skills, tactics, training, equipment, financing and experience than those we’ve seen so far, here in the United States.

So here’s the only warning you’re going to get. Stop preparing for the last war and get ready for the next one. Expand your horizons, and learn from allies who have experiences that are different from your own. 

You haven’t met the varsity team yet, but they’re on the way with a whole new game. 

Prepare accordingly.

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