By Brian N. O’Donnell
The law enforcement priority of work and immediate goal during an active shooter event is to stop the threat. Find, fix, and finish. It is that simple. Resolution by way of shooter suicide, surrender, or lead poisoning is immaterial – the threat just needs to end. An understanding that if the shooter is still active, accurate fire is the fastest way to achieve this, must be the primary driver of police behaviors. This means that the police must position themselves to address, either with commands or physical contact, the threat. Regrettably, there have been ample opportunities for law enforcement agencies to study and learn from school shooting events and yet training and preparation gaps continue to emerge.
Theoretically, the initial response to an active shooter school event should not be difficult. Show up and stop the threat. It is just that easy – and just that difficult. The first car on scene should radio a quick assessment of what is unfolding and direct other officers in while getting ready to enter the school. There are a number of considerations we should all be thinking about when training for the response to an active threat. I’ll address many of them here.
Will an approaching officer have a plate carrier? Rifle? Breaching tools?
How comfortable is the officer with his gear? How skilled with a firearm? How confident?
How often has the officer trained with this gear and these tools? Have they ever actually forced open an interior locked school door? Exterior? Or any door? Think about the officer who pecks away at a car window with an ASP baton because they have never broken one before and must learn how to do so when seconds matter.
If a school is in lockdown, how do the police accomplish their primary goal? Have officers even walked the school to familiarize themselves with the layout? Will a rake and break work to access the shooter on the ground floor? Have officers ever been exposed to this concept? Figuring these things out on scene takes time, which is the one thing they do not have.
If officers can access the building, how comfortable are they with moving through and clearing rooms in two-, three-, or four-person configurations? How often have they had decision-based training for these likely activities during an active shooter event?
Do they have access to any ongoing training which replicates the realities they may have to navigate…the speed, emotional intensity, the ability to recognize and respond to changing dynamics? Having, or not having, this type of training will inform an officer’s actions, or inactions during an event.
Things get messier when multiple agencies are introduced and when an active shooter call goes out and everybody comes. Every jurisdiction within radio range heads that way. Local police, state police, sheriff’s deputies, off duty officers, and any alphabet agencies nearby. Everyone. Can they communicate? Do they have a pre-set shared frequency, or can they be patched over quickly?
Who is in charge? Who directs resources? Are plainclothes assets readily identifiable or are they just another person with a gun that will need to be addressed?
Fire and rescue agencies will respond eventually, as will parents. Is there a plan for all of this that has been practiced? Have the regional law enforcement agencies trained for this type of response together? Especially the initial response? This is not about a command staff tabletop exercise, this is about officers from different agencies forming up, entering, breaching if necessary, finding the threat and eliminating it – the type of thing that should happen before a command post even has time to stand up. A command post will generally only serve a function in the aftermath of an event, meaning the active threat is over, priority one complete.
The response to active shooting events must be understood by all parties to minimize casualties. An educated and engaged school staff are the first line of defense and must act with the understanding that law enforcement will come, just not fast enough.
Law enforcement should arrive prepared to gear up and go in, breaching as necessary – which is why every car should have a backpack style breaching kit. Meaningful training and planning by law enforcement for an active shooter event should be a priority for every jurisdiction, to include training with regional partners. As added benefits, officer skills required for successful resolution of active shooter events transfer well into every area of policing and training with adjoining jurisdictions can create strong regional relationships. At the very least, each LE agency should foster an expectation that constantly working to address an active threat as quickly as possible – with an enhanced tolerance for risk – should be an unquestioned cultural norm.
Developing meaningful individual officer competencies and interagency compatibility seems to be a good place to start fostering that culture. Time is not on anyone’s side but the shooter’s. Training is critical to success, and more importantly, the right kind of training. Training which develops creative problem-solving skills during complex, dynamic, and high stress activities. This will more likely transfer to better decision making and task execution in real-world events.
All in all, the fastest way to save lives is to end the threat. Period. That is the goal. It should be done as safely as possible, but if someone is shooting, officers should be actively working to stop it. Waiting for someone else to do it should not even enter an officer’s mind, let alone a supervisor’s.
Once the immediate threat is over, life-saving aid can begin. This is critical as the most preventable deaths in active shooter events come from unattended hemorrhage – people bleeding out. Giving officers the appropriate tools and training to access and address an active threat should be a priority at every agency. These simple steps will save lives. There have been far too many of these for an agency or officers to be ill-prepared or ill-informed on how to best approach and resolve the event.
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About the author:
Brian N. O’Donnell retired as a Lieutenant with the City of Charlottesville, Virginia, Police Department. He served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps and served with the Charlottesville police department for 25 years. He earned the Advanced Specialist designation by the Force Science Institute in 2018, and became an IADLEST National Certified Instructor in 2020.
O’Donnell has worked in patrol, as a SWAT member, as a detective with a regional narcotics task force, and as a full-time task force officer with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. He has been a supervisor as a patrol Sergeant, Patrol Shift Commander, Commander of the Strategic Policing Bureau, and the Training and Firearm’s Units Supervisor.