Lessons from Colorado: How mass shootings have changed police response and what citizens can learn
Colorado has certainly had its share of tragedy when it comes to “active shooter” incidents. It has also been the epicenter of a paradigm shift in law enforcement response to such incidents.
In the 1980s and 1990s the response by police to active shooting incidents was to set up a perimeter around the building and wait for the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to show up and make entry into the building.
That incident changed the way law enforcement trains and responds to active shooting incidents. The training is tougher as is the response, but at least officers can “go tactical” much more quickly and hopefully save more lives.
Each department’s policy and training will vary dealing with active shooters, but all share the same goal of containing and neutralizing the threat. Put very simply the first responding officers will quickly assemble, grab the biggest guns, most ammunition and best body armor they can muster from their patrol cars and double-time toward the loudest noises — like bangs, booms or screams.
From a law enforcement standpoint no matter what happens, this is going to be a bad day, but we are going to try to minimize the loss of life and damage to citizens' lives. The good news for my brothers and sisters wearing badges is that most active shooters are cowards, that when faced with someone who poses a threat, they usually either surrender or kill themelves.
In Aurora, Colo., where a gunman opened fire at a movie theater last month, killing 12 people and wounding dozens more, the shooter was nearly completely covered in ballistic body armor, but when faced by determined police officers, gave up. Clearly he loved himself enough that he did not want to die or get hurt. (Former Ann Arbor Police Chief Dan Oates, now the police chief in Aurora, is leading the investigation there.
More common than the random violence perpetrated by the Aurora shooter are workplace violence incidents. One should never take “casual” conversation about physically harming another co-worker lightly — they do not belong in the workplace and should be reported to a supervisor and acted upon. Violent workers can become active shooters when they feel their circumstances are “hopeless.”
The active shooters who would be most difficult to handle would be terrorists like those encountered in 2004 in the Beslan, Russia, school siege. In that case heavily armed and trained terrorists held 1,100 innocent people hostage for three days and caused the death of 380.
That kind of incident would necessitate many law enforcement SWAT teams and perhaps military intervention. In studying that case; however, it was found that if anyone armed might have been able to engage the terrorists early, many victims could have gotten out of the gym that became the holding area.
The fact of the matter is that when these tragic incidents happen they are studied by law enforcement and tactics evolve to combat new threats. Cops are then communicating these tactical suggestions to each other, better than they ever have, using the Internet and law enforcement websites.
More importantly, law enforcement agencies are communicating with schools and businesses to develop plans should these incidents or other emergencies occur. The key to handling these incidents and for that matter any disaster, is prior planning, training and setting up lines of communication before an incident unfolds.
So the cops are learning. What about citizens? What should citizens do if confronted by an active shooter?
The United States Department of Homeland Security offers an online pamphlet of suggestions for citizens: http://www.alerts.si.edu/docs/DHS_ActiveShooterBook.pdf .
In that pamphlet the Department of Homeland Security offers the following tips: “Good practices for coping with an active shooter situation
- Be aware of your environment and any possible dangers
- Take note of the two nearest exits in any facility you visit
- If you are in an office, stay there and secure the door
- If you are in a hallway, get into a room and secure the door
- As a last resort, attempt to take the active shooter down. When the shooter is at close range and you cannot flee, your chance of survival is much greater if you try to incapacitate him/her.
- Most important: Call 911 when it is safe to do so
The key to active shooter incidents is being alert and aware and getting the police responding as soon as possible, because most of these incidents are over in 10-15 minutes.
Finally, you may have noticed that I have not mentioned any murderer by name. This was done on purpose because as I have stated in the past, I do not believe these vile wretches deserve any recognition or media attention which might encourage the next antisocial misfit to take up arms and kill innocent people for no reason.
I applaud the governor and people of Colorado who name, mourn and personalize the victims, praise the heroes and refuse to utter the name of any clown-haired coward who caused this tragedy. This trend is gaining some initial footings in the media and hopefully that will continue.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.
Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for AnnArbor.com.