“May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”

"This report is maybe 12-years-old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried till River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear because there's a whole universe of folk who are gonna know it, too. They're gonna see it. Somebody has to speak for these people. You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you all come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything I know this, they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, 10, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people . . . better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave." ~ Captain Malcom Reynolds

Monday, April 20, 2009

Active Shooter Musings

Yes, still alive here - things hopefully going to start calming down this week, so I can even get back to some blogging and other "normal life" things.

Continuing a discussion started over at Spartan Cops... kind of a police/shooting focused post, so if you're bored with that sorry! I know I've hit on it a bit before here, but feel like something more in depth today.

A good chunk of my time lately has been involvement with our department's active shooter training cadre. For those not familiar with the term "active shooter" is referring to situations such as Columbine, Virginia Tech etc. where one or more suspects are on a scene actively killing people - it's not a normal hostage, assault or whatever call, as the goal of the suspect is to cause as many deaths as possible.

Up til the late 1990's the standard police response to high-risk events like this had been to set up a perimeter, contain the scene and wait for SWAT to arrive and resolve these things. Columbine changed that dynamic for everyone, with agencies realizing that the best thing to do is immediately enter and engage teh threat, in order to save as many lives as possible.

Up until recently my department was like most in that we provided some classroom training for everyone on what to do in this situation, discussed some of the options, and left it at that. Policy was written in place on what to do, and we pretty much relied on the individual to do their own preparations. Some "what-if's" and discussion took place on the various shifts and such, but nothing really formal was in place beyond that. Fortunately for us we had not been faced with an actual situation calling these skills into play, as I'm not really sure how as a whole we would have preformed - not a criticism of my department or the individual officers, just a comment on the level most agencies are honestly at with this.

Last year some of our forward thinking upper members started looking at this in conjunction with some other training, and working with the ALERRT program we developed lesson plans and a training cycle for the department as a whole. This involved not just classroom time, but more importantly scenario based force-on-force training located in some of our local schools and businesses. Obviously it's taking time to get several hundred sworn officers through this, which is part of why I have a full plate. Then it will be setting up ongoing training every year to try and build on some of these new skills for everyone.

Anyway, the thoughts I've had after a month of this so far...

Overall the training is going over well. Most people have been very supportive of both the concept and the information we are getting out there. A few people who are still a bit overwhelmed by the idea of entering that kind of scene, possibly alone; and some others who are a bit resistive to new tactics and techniques - but that is to be expected anytime you have a group facing change. It has been very refreshing to hear the number of officers who make comments about the realism of the training and that they feel more prepared having done so.

Two big issues I've noted... not criticisms of the officers involved, more just a note on what is likely to happen in a real situation, things for you to be prepared for in yourself, and what to expect from others. As officers or armed citizens who are present on one of the scenes we absolutely owe it to ourselves and everyone else to treat this seriously.

- There are a HUGE number of people who absolutely freeze when the first shots of fire go off (we are using blanks to set up certain of the scenes, for the obvious addition of sound and realism to the moment) - even though they know it's coming, even though they know it's training and not real, there is a definite "oh shit" moment when that loud sound echoes inside the building and the body reacts. The eyes get big, breathing and heart rate increase, and you start to get that tunnel vision and stop paying attention to some of your other senses. And yes, this happened to me as well the first time - pretty much everyone does it to some extent - the only difference you see is how long it lasts. Training and experience and practice can reduce it to a very short time before you react, whereas the lack of the same can have you sitting there in the hallway for a long time... I hate to say I've even seen two people so far who when it happened started to run back out of the building before they were stopped - and this was training! Which means, I hate to say, there will be officers who do the same thing on a real call - or who don't even show up.

- The second big issue I see is the tendency we have developed as officers to do what I call "sir'ing people to death." We set up a few of the scenarios where:
  • The suspect has already shot people (often in view of the officers who are responding, and
  • The suspect is still very visibly armed, is refusing to comply with commands, and is in fact stating an intention to continue and moving towards areas with new victims
We put the responders in this situation, and they are wasting a great deal of time giving numerous commands to drop the weapon, not move or whatever - instead of engaging the threat and ending things quickly. Case law and common sense both easily establish something like this as a case where deadly force is more than justified, and we stress both in the classroom phase. But, when the moment comes to pull the trigger, a lot of people are taking a long time to get to that moment.

This comes from two things in my opinion. Number one comes down to the fact that for most people in today's society taking a life is not a natural thing - we have centuries of religious and cultural training which has taught people that it is "wrong" to kill another, and it is a big mental step to do so even in a simulated environment and even when they know they are doing the right thing. I'm sure that the fact that it is a live person scenario is a lot of what adds to this as well - it's not some video game character or static target, but something that the mind "realizes" is another living, breathing person. Thus the hesitation. For more on this topic as well, read any of Col. Grossman's work or attend any of his seminars - you will definitely come away enlightened.

The other reason for the hesitation has to do with how we train cops throughout the use of force and general police work, and with what they see on the TV and read in the papers. From the first moments we remind officers that the decision they make in an instant could be judged in the courts for years. News stories are quick to jump on the sensation of any use of force, or possibly bad shooting and spread it far and wide with all the public commentary attached. Even if your use of force is clearly justified you can bet on a complaint, and even clean shootings still end up with the offender's families suing the officers and departments for civil damages. Cell phone cameras, in car video, school and mall surveillance systems - it seems that everyplace you go you are being recorded (welcome to 1984), and should you be involved in that active shooter scene there is a good chance some of it is showing up on tv later... So, we've now added that second mental block to officers, where instead of concentrating on tactics and staying alive, they are now thinking through whether or not this shooting will pass muster in the nebulous court of public opinion...

We have spent so much time in the past twenty years teaching skills such as "verbal judo" and training our officers to talk their ways out of situations, deescalate conflict and trying to break the whole pattern of brute force policing which had grown over the years that we have gone to the other extreme. When it does come time to go hands on, or to step it up even to lethal force, too many of our newer, more educated but less worldly officers haven't made those mental connections yet... It shows in training, and it will show on the street.

Anyway, this is already getting a bit longer than planned, but just a few of my thoughts. I may do another later on the bad guy side of the coin, I haven't decided yet. For those of you in law enforcement I STRONGLY suggest that you seek out training like this if your agency will let you, and if they won't you need to start lobbying them strongly - not for liability reasons, but out of the moral obligations of our job. If you are an armed citizen do your best to find a corresponding amount of training on your side - unfortunately a lot of these programs are law enforcement only, but similar force-on-force and tactical courses are available from a number of reputable locations. In either case, you need to also do your mental "what if's?" and make some plans in advance - that way if it ever happens, you are at least somewhat ready with a direction to go.

Do what you can so you aren't the one stuck frozen in the door...


Anonymous said...

Sean, this is wonderful and timely and important. I hope you write on the subject again, as much as you can without compromising your integrity or confidentiality. Thank you.

Spartan Cops said...

Great post. I'm adding it to my links post for next month.

I think the issues you bring up are very valid and hopefully more officers will learn from them.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Our whole dept. (140 officers) recently went though our in house training for this. It is amazing some of the wide variations in response you can see when the shooting starts.