What Actions Should Police Take in Active Shooter and Large-Scale Incidents?
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Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a three-part series on responding to critical incidents. Read the first article to learn how law enforcement has changed and adapted response to critical incidents over time.
The unthinkable can happen on anyone’s doorstep, and on August 4, 2019 it happened in both El Paso, Texas and, just hours later, in Dayton, Ohio. The El Paso shooting left 22 people dead and nine were killed in Dayton. Just days before, three people, including two children, were killed at a food festival in California.
This string of shootings takes us back to May 31, 2019, when tragedy struck our own city, Virginia Beach. A gunman killed 12 people in the public works building just steps from the police headquarters where we have both worked as police officers. At his first conference after the incident, police chief Jim Cervera said, “No police chief, fire chief, city manager… should have to deal with this tragic situation.”
Yet there appears to be no end to the increase in active shooter events across the country, so responders need to be prepared for a worst-case scenario. In our combined over-50 years of police work, we have responded to numerous large-scale incidents including active shooters, riots at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, barricaded subjects, and robberies. Here are some of the steps police and other first responders need to take immediately following a mass casualty, large-scale incident.
Establish a Command Post
A command post (CP) is a location for the incident commander (usually a police supervisor) to direct operations and send first responders where they are needed. Traditionally, in police training exercises and operations, the supervisor goes to the scene to get a first-hand look and assess the situation. However, in cases of an active shooter with automatic weapons, that could be a fatal mistake. In the words of our trainers on critical incidents, “the commander of the incident should avoid becoming a victim and rendered unable to command.” Thus, the CP should be outside the “kill zone.” The “kill zone” is the area where officers and citizens could be killed and/or pinned down (unable to move).
In cases where the kill zone is large, like the Las Vegas shooting, the CP location needs to be adjusted accordingly. The CP could be in a building or a vehicle; many departments have a mobile command post but until that arrives, the CP could be a supervisor’s vehicle.
Set Inner/Outer Perimeters
There are two different perimeters generally marked on a map to cordon off and isolate the kill zone. Both perimeters are outside the kill zone and prevent people from entering the kill zone. Perimeters are also meant to contain the suspect(s) by limiting escape routes. They can be expanded or contracted based on the incident but should still be identified on maps and computer grids.
The inner perimeter is established by blocking streets close to and surrounding the location of the incident. Police may be assisted by public works or highway departments to set up barricades and signs. Officers stationed along the outer perimeter, which is established farther away from the scene, direct members of the public away from the area and facilitate getting responders to the correct staging areas. Staging areas are pre-designated locations within the outer perimeter where responders and resources await tactical assignments.
Other activities within the outer perimeter range from medical evacuation (medevac) and triage, to media and public information dissemination. Specific areas are set up to provide victims and their families with medical support, services, and privacy. At these locations, victims can be evaluated and treated, and detectives can debrief witnesses and gather critical information and intelligence on suspects.
Utilize Venue Utilities
Law enforcement leaders and emergency managers must take steps to familiarize themselves with floorplans and utilities at high-risk venues such as shopping malls, sports stadiums, schools, and tourist attractions. This is because in the event of an active shooter or other critical incident, it is important to know how and where to control the lights, gas, electric, and water in areas where victims and the suspects are located.
These steps should also be taken before high-risk events such as parades or festivals. For example, in the Las Vegas shooting, law enforcement could have utilized the festival venue’s sound or lighting systems to aid with evacuation. Giving directions over a microphone or switching on certain lights could have directed people where to go or interfered with the suspect’s view of victims.
Employ Social Media or Smart Phone Apps
In active shooter and critical incidents, Twitter and Facebook can be used to direct victims and family members to the right places. This would help to confirm the safety and whereabouts of those lost, separated, or injured. If the organization (i.e., school, government building, or other) has a mass communication application, it should be employed to warn people to take cover or stay away from certain locations as required.
This was a recommendation after the Virginia Tech shooting where the gunman killed 32 students. At the time, Virginia Tech had a communication system for emergency responders, but not for notifying students and faculty. Many schools (including Virginia Tech) and government agencies now have mass communication systems.
Train, Train, Train!
There are several types of training that responders should undertake. It starts with individual and collective training within organizations (police, fire/rescue, hospitals, mental health services) so that responders and medical providers are prepared to act when an active shooter or other critical incident occurs. Responders also need to partner with private sector businesses to brief and train employees on how to act in a worst-case scenario.
Agencies should consider inviting instructors from state and federal organizations to conduct specialized training in areas such as active shooter and terrorism. Interdepartmental training across first responder agencies is also essential preparation. Don’t forget that all training for active shooter and mass casualty events starts with “EXERCISE, EXERCISE, EXERCISE.” In the chaos of the moment when the unthinkable happens, training and preparation are the greatest tools responders can possess.
About the Authors:
Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2004.
Bruce Razey began his law enforcement career in 1975. During his 35-year career, he worked for three diverse police departments. Bruce served in patrol operations, special operations and the investigative division. His assignments included field training officer, air unit coordinator/observer, field training supervisor, community policing supervisor, detective supervisor and committee chairman for internal affairs review unit. He served on numerous hiring and promotional boards; authored and co-authored policies and procedures; created lesson plans to instruct new and veteran officers in a variety of topics; and established policy and guidelines for an improved method of conducting police lineups and eye-witness testimony. Bruce holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology from the University of Saint Leo, Florida. He graduated number one from the Regional Police Academy and from the West Point Leadership & Management Training Course.
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