On March 11, 2009 a little town in southwestern Germany, Winnenden, Baden-Wurttemberg, made international headlines. Early in the morning 17-year-old Tim Kretschmer went on a shooting spree at the Albertville-Realschule, killing 15 and then committing suicide himself. In Germany, the shooting was referred to as "Amoklauf" — such as "running amok" — when someone runs wildly, without self-control, like a madman or lunatic. It is not called "active shooter," as not every situation where mass violence occurs involves guns. In an Amok-run the motivation of the hurting or killing can stem from any number of mediums — the means of control can vary just as much.
This was not the first incident of its kind in the country. Most Amok crises in Germany, until the end of the 1990s, were committed by adults. That changed after Littleton. "When Littleton happened, we at the police trainer organization in Germany knew immediately that we would get the same in Germany and also in other countries in Europe," says Ecko Niebergall, president of Polizeitrainer in Deutschland (PiD). Captain Niebergall has over 30 years experience with the Hesse State Police (Germany) and is a consultant of European Union law enforcement training programs. "We say it's like Coca Cola or the hamburger … everything, sooner or later, is also in Europe. And it's the same with crime."
History has shown that active shooter incidents occur in clusters, and media exposure in all its forms, can fuel the fire. Concerns for media attention (how much is too much?), a shooter's "fifteen minutes" and copycat crimes exist as off-shoot problems of the problem itself. Shocking crime scenes make their way across the globe in seconds, thanks to the powers of supra-broadcasting and the Internet. Niebergall points out that the time in which such things flip over from the U.S. to Europe is much shorter than it used to be. Where it used to take ten years for "copycat" crimes to catch on abroad, it now takes as little as a few months.
One comfort, perhaps, is that each time something like this happens, it gives responders more tools to fight back with. Public awareness is now at its peak: Companies, schools and law enforcement teams are better equipped than ever and are organizing themselves worldwide to stem the bloodshed.
After Littleton, German Amok trainers, despite wary protestations from local politicians, began mobilizing to prepare officers should a similar situation happen in their backyard. In 2002 they got worse than Littleton — they got Erfurt. On April 26, 2002 19-year-old gunman Robert Steinhauser opened fire and killed sixteen people — faculty, students and one police officer — before killing himself at the Gutenberg-Gymnasium. According to Niebergall, that was the turning point where German politicians realized that "American circumstances," had arrived. They realized now that training preparation was sorely needed.
Tact and tactics
Several German state police agencies then began training with PiD, as the group had already established itself and had been training jointly with international organizations to devise and practice tactics for four- and two-man teams. The training has since become an international affair. Since 2006 PiD has coordinated the European Trainer's Conference in Nuremburg on a yearly basis. This year's meeting, held on March 12, saw over 300 police trainers from 12 different countries. The conference provides an apt platform where trainers can speak to experts and other members and share with one another a breadth of experience. The intent is to contribute to the "urgently needed cooperation between law enforcement practitioners on a national and international level" and "be a decisive factor for the question of how to master the challenges of internal and external security."
John T. Meyer, Jr., president of the Virginia-based Team One Network, has been teaching at the event for years. Trainings are conducted in simultaneous German-English translation and subjects range from the effects of less-lethal, how to conduct realistic training, concealed carry, active shooting programs and then practical exercises. Also covered is how to operate in low-light conditions, knife defense, medical response, weapon retention and more. "Nobody's perfect and everybody has different tactics, but we review it and look at it, and for certain situations … it will work," says Meyer.
Training changes and evolves as active shooters evolve. Gene Rugala is a retired supervisory special agent and former behavioral profiler for the FBI, and is now a senior advisor for threat assessment and management at the Center for Personal Protection and Safety located in Spokane, Washington. Over the years he has done much research in the area of school violence. Rugala says that, for law enforcement, Columbine was "the watershed moment." Prior to that, patrol officers would "cordon off the area, secure the area, and wait for SWAT," says Rugala. "SWAT teams usually are not the first responders; they have to come from other areas, bring all their gear and, while this is happening, time's a-wasting." Active shooter teams were developed after Columbine; first responders now are trained to go and eliminate the threat, with a core team of three or four officers, rather than wait for SWAT to intervene. And while it remains imperative in these type of tactical entries to save lives, officer safety is just as important.
"We don't want to be running into barricade situations," says Meyer. "Now [responders] can be thinking about the active shooter, but they also must think about taking cover as they're moving up to the scene — because they could end up being one of the fatalities."
Streamlined and specific training is needed as there are many focuses in these realistically made-up scenarios. Meyer emphasizes that at Team One, trainers teach a way, not the way — as no two scenarios are alike.
Active shootings happen in not only in schools, but in malls and office buildings. Practical exercises place officers in these different venues. "It's not just a quiet thing," says Meyer. "We'll play loud, blasting music, fire alarms [will] go off. We even have sprinkler systems, if we can, because this is the environment that they're going to respond in. When they actually do have to respond to the real thing, it'll look and smell and feel familiar."
As mass shootings ripple throughout the world law enforcement communities learn more than how to subdue a shooter. For example, corporations, schools and law enforcement must also learn how to deal with media and address victims' families. Rugala says the manner in which agencies deal with these issues after the fact can impact "how you're perceived and how you've handled the incident" — something that all agencies inevitably face.
Weighing worldly threats
School and workplace shootings are still very infrequent events. Rugala points out that "most workplace homicides occur during robberies." Regardless, one time is one time too many. In the states, the numbers speak for themselves. Active shooters are among some of the most terrifying threats we face today, considering the mass casualties afflicted on innocent civilians.
The threat exists abroad, too. But to Germany and Europe in general this threat is one of many on their map. They have much more to worry about.
"We are far from being prepared," says Niebergall, "because we have many more threats [such as] that of Islamic terrorists." While U.S. law enforcement teams can concentrate intently on active shooter trainings, European forces must also train heavily for the very real possibilities of terrorist attacks, such as those that occurred recently in Mumbai, or the July, 2005 bombing of the London transit system — a mere 300-some miles from Germany.
U.S. law enforcement agencies are also very aware of terrorism and train for these scenarios as well. Still, the possibility of such attacks remain far more prevalent abroad.
It may sound simple…
In his experience, Rugala has seen tactics evolve and improve. Law enforcement agencies are partnering with schools and companies, companies and schools are reaching out to law enforcement agencies, and it's a much more collaborative effort from all angles: The best time to plan for a crisis, after all, is not in the middle of one.
"Awareness is key," reminds Rugala. "You can bet after Sully Sullenberger landed that US Airways jet in the Hudson River, people [began to pay] better attention to where the exit rows are. Whereas before people got complacent, now everyone's listening."
The same goes for active shooter control. It's a global challenge, but the rewards of global collaboration to counteract active shooters and Amok-runs are immense. It's necessary that law enforcement coordinate changing tactics in order to better function and to keep people alive.
"It sounds simple", says Niebergall, "but many simple things are not accomplished because many people want to run before they can walk."
With the help of Meyer and Team One, Niebergall hopes to provide officers with a good base, so operations continue to gain strength in the future. He says training is the easy part; much harder — and the main point of any Amok or active shooter training — is reaching the officer's mind and heart; because "they are the only people who can give a commitment after training," says Niebergall.
"They are the only ones who realize that nothing is behind them and they are the last station between life and death. In former times they were forced to stay out and do nothing and wait for SWAT.
"This paradigm has changed."