Ever since the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999 shocked the country and the world, law enforcement experts and agencies have refocused their efforts to learn all they can about persons who become active shooters and how we can be prepared for those situations in order to either prevent them beforehand or stop them as quickly as possible to limit the number of casualties.
What we know is that, unfortunately, we can’t prevent all active shooter events from happening; however, we have seen that many have been thwarted just in time and doing so has potentially saved hundreds of lives.
Through extensive study of those who commit these heinous acts, we’ve also learned much more about who they are and what their motivations are. Because of that, we can now assess potential active shooters and take actions to stop them ahead of time or at least limit the damage they inflict.
So how can law enforcement professionals and agencies improve their active shooter preparedness? Let’s take a look at several ways below.
Prevent the Event
Obviously, the ideal scenario would be to prevent the active shooter situation from taking place at all. But how could we possibly do that when the event itself is seemingly so random. Well, thanks to years of research and analysis by highly skilled experts,we now know that most active shooters go through five phases before the event. By knowing and understanding those phases, we may be able to spot a potential active shooter or situation before it happens and put a stop to it.
Phase I – the fantasy phase
In this first phase, the person begins to fantasize, or dream, about a day in which they wreak havoc and carnage on a person or group of people. Often the shooter will envision achieving fame and infamy from their acts. They may even idolize other shooters such as those who carried out the Columbine tragedy.
It’s during this stage that they will often write their thoughts and fantasies in a journal or on social media, sometimes accompanied with gruesome drawings and images. They’re also likely to share some of these thoughts with at least one other person. It’s also at this stage where if that other person or persons report what they hear, steps can be taken to prevent the incident from happening and potentially save many lives.
However, for various reasons, it often goes unreported. This may be because the person doesn’t think the shooter is serious and doesn’t want to be accused of overreacting.
Phase II – the planning phase
After fantasizing and deciding to carry out those fantasies, the shooter will plan a course of action, answering the questions: who, what, when, where and how.
As he becomes more obsessed with this plan, he’ll usually write extensive notes, either in a notebook or online somewhere.This is often referred to as the manifesto.
If someone finds this so-called manifesto in time and reports it to law enforcement, the plan can be thwarted, and once again, lives can be saved.
Phase III – the preparation phase
Now that a plan is in place, he’ll take active measures to prepare for the plan, including recognizance at the future scene and buying or stealing the items he’ll need, such as guns, ammo and body armor. It’s important to also consider that the active shooter may purchase materials to build makeshift bombs, either to cause damage or to be used as a distraction.
Once again, here we have an opportunity for someone to notice strange behavior such as accumulating an inordinate amount of weapons and ammo and reporting the behavior to authorities – especially those individuals in the retail market who may notice odd purchases – thus hopefully preventing the incident from occurring.
In this phase, the shooter may further distance himself from others and isolate himself from the outside world. In other words,they’re not worried about meeting deadlines or paying bills because they aren’t planning on being around much longer.
Phase IV – the approach phase
As the day of reckoning arrives and the shooter prepares to carry out his plan, you may notice someone who is dressed oddly or acting suspicious. Perhaps they’re wearing heavy, baggy clothes on a hot day, or they’re carrying a suspicious oversized bag. In both of these examples, they’re likely hiding guns and ammunition. The approach phase affords us a final chance to notice odd behavior, act upon it and prevent a tragedy.
Phase V – the implementation phase
The plan has now been launched and action has commenced.The shooter, no matter his motivation, is now prepared to take as many lives as possible. At this final stage, immediate action by someone is needed to intervene and stop the shooter as quickly as possible.
As a police officer, this person may in fact be you. Whether on-duty or off, you might be the one to arrive on scene first. If so,you’ll have to assess the situation as quickly as you can and determine if you wait for backup or proceed on your own.
For some, the decision will be a difficult one, while for others, instincts may take over and they will proceed cautiously, but forcefully, ready to take action and prevent loss of life.
First One on the Scene – What to do?
As the first, or lone, officer on the scene, you have a critical decision to make. Do you wait for backup, which may be protocol, or do you proceed forward toward the sound of gunfire and try to stop the gunman yourself?
Remember that waiting, even just seconds or minutes, can be the difference between life and death for victims. Conventional wisdom says that you wait for backup. In fact, it’s likely that much of your training for dangerous situations is to wait for backup to arrive. However,brave men and women now realize that doing so in active shooter situations can cost lives and so many are choosing to go toward the gunfire instead.
Active Shooter Preparedness Training
In order to train for these types of situations, your department should institute active shooter-specific training protocols.These include exercises such as force-on-force solo officer/active shooter scenarios, moving rapidly to the sound of guns while assessing the situation, reloading weapons under high stress, and repetitive, solo officer active shooter drills.
An active shooter incident is likely the deadliest and one of the most catastrophic situations your department will face, so it’s critical that you invest the time and tools to properly train for it. It’s also vital that you keep that training up on a consistent basis. The more often and better trained you and your fellow officers are, the better you’ll be prepared to act under fire when the time comes.
Strategy, game plan and communication
Now is the time to assess your community’s situation and form a comprehensive, cohesive strategy and game plan for active shooter preparedness. Ensure that everyone knows the plan and is prepared to carry it out.
This is also the time in which you should reach out and communicate with fellow law enforcement agencies in your area.Talk about what they’ve done to prepare and work with them to coordinate so that you can be on the same page and help out each other should that time come.
No matter who we are or where we live, each and every one of us has the potential to be affected by one of these senseless tragedies. However, if we take steps to prepare ahead of time, then that preparation will help during not only an active shooter incident, but also might even prevent it in the first place.