Active Shooter Response Training

One of the top topics law enforcement trainers should be working to share with their officers is how to respond to active shooter incidents. Although there are a ton of other priorities driver’s training, workplace harassment, etc. coming down on your shoulders, the potential for extremely bad things happening in your community’s schools, office buildings or even churches puts active shooter response training at or near the top of our training needs. The reality is that this training isn’t specific to just that issue it’s applicable to many law enforcement situations.

I know you’re probably thinking something like “Hey, wait a minute running full-blown training like this is tough!” and you’re absolutely right. You’d have to push and pull to get the OK from admin. It can also be difficult to orchestrate due to personnel, facilities and money, including the “O” word (overtime). I’ve been through the same challenges, and I certainly agree with you about the obstacles. It’s a difficult undertaking and despite your best efforts, you won’t always get the approval for the training. So, what do you do? Do you just give up and put it on the shelf for another day? I sure hope not.

Henry Ford once said, “Any problem can be solved if you break it down into its smallest parts.” How do his words apply to our training needs? Well, if we can’t get a full-blown active shooter program rolling, I suggest you break the training down into manageable (or its smallest) parts.

So here’s the plan for enacting incremental active shooter response training.

Arrest & Control Training
Arrest and control training is a no brainer here as far as taking an active shooter suspect into custody. But let’s take this one step further. There’s a good chance that before officers get to the suspect, they’ll be like “tactical salmon,” moving upstream against a wave of civilians who are frantically heading in the opposite direction seeking safety. It’s even worse if this takes place in a school. Imagine a bunch of screaming, frightened kids coming at the troops from down the hall.

To one degree or another, it’s a good bet that cops will be dealing with hysterical people and/or those who are too paralyzed with fear to move. We’re talking about folks who are literally scared to death over what they’ve experienced they may even physically latch onto officers as if they were life preservers and not let go.

This is where arrest and control (A&C) training comes into context. Ask the department’s A&C instructors to look at the problem, and come up with some simple techniques. My suggestion would be to incorporate the basic concepts of verbalization and appropriate physical action into the training.

Verbalization: You may want to have the A&C instructors train your officers to look at this as an opportunity to get some quick intelligence. The officers can ask, “Where is he? What does he look like? What kind of guns?” Ask short, specific questions and send them on their way. Use your “big cop” voice and order people to “keep moving down the hall” or to “let go.” If that doesn’t work, you might have to get physical with these innocent people.

Hands-on action: We don’t want to use palm strikes, knee kicks or other aggressive techniques against individuals who aren’t suspects. How then, do we teach officers to break free from frightened victims and witnesses? I don’t have much arrest and control experience, so I’ll defer to the experts and suggest you do the same. Ask your A & C folks to come up with simple ways for officers to get free of the “life preserver” people, then include these techniques in the arrest and control training, explaining why and what physical actions are appropriate.

Firearms Training
If you have some form of regular firearms training not just qualifications, but real training why not incorporate some active shooter aspects into it? However, before we talk about that, one topic that’s very applicable is firearms safety. By this I mean applying overall weapons safety to a tactical environment, such as an active shooter incident. Here are the rules:

  • Never assume you know the condition of a weapon, especially your own, before going into a gunfight.
  • Never allow the muzzle to cover anything you do not intend to use lethal force against.
  • Keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until you make the conscious decision to use lethal force
  • Be sure of your target, backstop and beyond.

Each one of these is directly applicable to the challenge of moving down a crowded hallway while hunting an armed and crazed suspect with a wave of scared people running past you.

Firearms training should include active shooter response drills. One method is to have your officers practice whatever formations you usually use. I prefer the “T” formation to the diamond, and here’s why:

I’ve run firearms training using both, and with the four-officer diamond formation, there’s a very real probability that the flank officers will jeopardize the safety of the point officer. If a threat develops on the left, and officers on the opposite side try to address it, they’ll most likely bring their firearms way too close to their partners. In some cases, it may even lead to officers pointing their guns at fellow officers, “lasering” them without realizing it. In an intense situation like this, the officers might not even realize they’re jeopardizing each other. Again, I like the “T” formation because this problem is at least reduced by two or three officers, shoulder to shoulder, with a rear guard behind them.

Whatever formation you prefer, I recommend that you discuss it first with the officers and then dry-fire the drill. If there are any issues, it’s better to identify them during the dry fire training rather than the live fire. It may take a little longer to get done, but the safety value built into such a training progression should be evident.

When the time is right, first run it as a stationary drill (no movement) with the front officers in formation. As part of this, I’d suggest a line of numbered targets. The instructor calls out a number or numbers as the command to fire. For example, if the instructor calls for number “three,” that’s the lethal force target that has to be addressed. All other targets are “no-shoots.” The drill should include verbalization to the no-shoot targets, as they represent innocent civilians. When and if the officers are ready, have them move back and forth on the range, shooting from the formation. You can simulate hallways if you wish by using traffic cones, tables or other means. A “pro tip” to share with the students for this training is to “only move as fast as you can accurately shoot.” This is good advice for range training and even more appropriate for a real life encounter. Also, this is a drill where you want a very low student-instructor ratio due to the type of training involved.

There are all kinds of drills that could be incorporated, but the objective here is to use your firearms training program to prepare officers for an active shooter incident. We talk about using formations in such a situation, but how often do we get to practice it? I’m sure you agree that as long as it’s done safely, getting our officers on the range and giving them the training opportunities discussed above will make it easier for them to respond if/when the real deal happens. We’re not giving up on the fundamentals of modern law enforcement firearms training, just enhancing it. Another plus is that you’ll challenge your officers with a new drill. There’s a good chance they’ll come away with a positive attitude because the training was relevant, safe and fun.

First Aid
I’m assuming that your department, like most, has to go through mandatory first aid training on a more or less regular basis, so why not ask the instructors to also cover material relevant to active shooter incidents? First of all, triage, which focuses on the assessment of wounded people, (who can be saved, and who is too far gone) is one subject that’s significant in an active shooter environment. (The Omaha Beach assault scene during “Saving Private Ryan” has a good example of triage in action amongst numerous casualties.) From there, the training should look at initial treatment for gunshot wounds and whether to extract victims, including how to do so, or remain in place.

Additionally, there’s a good chance that by the time our officers get to the suspect and/or the victims, they’ll be injured, profusely bleeding or maybe even dead. If at all possible before going “hands on,” officers should be encouraged to think about protecting themselves from blood-born pathogens, which is a very real officer survival issue. Disease that can be spread by unprotected contact is a legitimate concern, whether we’re dealing with victims, an active shooter or a suspect on the street.

Tactics Staff
Perhaps your agency is proactive and has a tactics or force options staff that is crossed-trained in these various disciplines, including active shooter situations, or perhaps you have a few officers who have gone to the active shooter response instructor course. Either way, another suggestion for department trainers is to consider getting these instructors into patrol and detective briefings. Folks, these are golden opportunities to do incremental active shooter training. Put the time to good use with creativity and initiative.

For example, during one session, the basics of responding to an incident could be reviewed in briefing. This might include the Contact and Rescue Team concepts, as well as the department’s use-of-force policy. Within this, one relevant topic should be the use of “suppressive fire.” If you don’t review this, officers will probably default to what they think is best. If they aren’t trained, their frame of reference is probably going to be something they’ve seen on TV, in the movies or maybe even a video game. That translates into a whole lot of precious ammunition be expended with little positive effect and huge potential problems, such as violating the “shoot what we know, not what we think” rule (including hitting innocent civilians) and running our magazines dry in the middle of a gunfight. (As far as I know, those unlimited capacity magazines you see in the movies haven’t yet been issued to our officers.)

Still another way to maximize this training opportunity is to get the officers off their butts. Move the briefing room tables around to simulate a hallway, a “T” intersection or a doorway into a room and practice. Safety concerns should be addressed if the troops are told to leave all firearms, tasers, etc. in their lockers before the training begins. Take an extra moment and check the officers to make sure they have done so. An option would be to have “red” or “blue” guns ready for them to use for a safe training environment. Even if you don’t have training guns, still have them lock up their firearms. They can use their “finger” guns if necessary. If you’re going to let the officers use their own firearms, before starting training, please make sure all weapons are safe and unloaded, and no ammunition is present. Also, if you choose this training option, you must make sure that officers properly load their weapons back up before going out on the streets.

The bottom line here is to safely train the officers in the applicable techniques of moving a formation down a hallway, addressing a “T” intersection or whatever method you use in patrol to enter a room. Even better, if the station’s empty and it’s OK with the Watch Commander, choose and prepare an area where you can safely instruct the troops. It will be more realistic than a simulated hallway. There are other movement drills that can also be included in this list, but I think you get the idea. Obviously, time is a concern because we’re talking about incremental training, probably during briefing sessions. It would be even better however, if you could schedule three to four officers for a 20-30 minute training session. Just remember that the most important aspect is to make sure that this training is done safely.

Have the Proper Mindset
One final topic to address is having a proper mindset. I can’t stress this one enough. A real, “shots fired, multiple victims” active shooter incident will be a challenge to officers’ tactics and more importantly their courage. Getting them to recognize the importance of an immediate response is huge. Trainers should hit this topic hard to get the message across. If we’re really the police officers we say we are, then this will be the time to prove it. This includes our off-duty mindset. Your department’s policies should officially encourage officers to carry their firearms while off duty with the proper mindset and training, as well as the message that they’ll be supported if it becomes necessary to use lethal force in such a situation.

Another relevant training aspect is that officers will have to keep their attention focused on the overall goal of ending the event, even though a civilian is lying on the ground with multiple gunshot wounds, or a child is screaming with their arms death-gripped around an officer’s legs. The officers can’t allow themselves to get so wrapped up in dealing with the victims that they fail to see a suspect appear down the hallway. We have to train our folks to maintain their focus during what could admittedly be a terrible situation.

The incremental active shooter response training should also consider not only what officers have to physically deal with, but also the mental impact. In your career, you’ve probably seen some pretty serious injuries, but usually involving one or two people at a time. However, imagine entering a room full of teenagers with a variety of terrible gunshot wounds. What will our cops think and feel when they see such carnage? The impact will be even worse if they have kids at home who are of the same age group. Be proactive and incorporate this topic so the troops are prepared if/when it happens to them.

If you can’t accomplish your active shooter training goals in one manner, look for other options and opportunities to train the techniques and share the information. Using an incremental process instead of a comprehensive program may not be the best solution, but if the trainers do their job right, it’s an option that could work for the most important people involved: officers who may someday get the call to respond to a Columbine High School, a Virginia Tech or even a Nickel Mines schoolhouse incident where five young girls were killed and five more were seriously wounded. This is why active shooter response training should have such a high priority on your training agenda.

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